02/08/2009 09:21 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Can a Giant Prehistoric Snake Teach Us About Climate Change?

The snake discovered recently by scientists in Colombia was huge: as long as a school bus and heavy as a small car.

Its remains, now being studied at the University of Florida, are about as long as a T-rex -- which of course makes me start conjuring up wild fantasies about what would happen if they did battle.

Unfortunately for my prehistoric daydreams, the "Titanoboa" -- whose discovery was published in the journal Nature this week -- lived about 6 million years after Tyrannosaurus and the rest of its dinosaur brethren went extinct.

And fortunately for snake-averse humans everywhere, the massive boa hasn't been slithering across the planet for several epochs. But the discovery of its South American remains will help give scientists a better picture of what earth's climate was like during the Paleocene -- the 10 million years or so after the dinosaurs were wiped out.

The answer: It was hot. Really hot.

An artist’s illustration of Titanoboa cerrejonensi, derived from fossil remains found in Colombia. (Credit: Jason Bourque)

The snake's gigantic dimensions are a sign that temperatures along the equator were once much warmer than they are now, according to Jonathan Bloch, the University of Florida paleontologist who co-discovered the snake.

Snakes and other cold-blooded animals are limited in body size by the ambient temperature of where they live, Bloch said. So for a snake to grow as large as Titanoboa, it had to be living in an extremely warm environment.

Based on the snake's size, its discoverers were able to calculate that the mean annual temperature at the equator 60 million years ago would have been about 91 degrees Fahrenheit. That's about 10 degrees warmer than it is today.

Think about that: Only 10 degrees warmer, and snakes were able to grow to the size of a school bus. (According to this map of Paleocene climate, Greenland also had palm trees.)

Scientists currently estimate that unless we control global warming emissions, average U.S. temperatures could be 3 to 9 degrees higher by the end of this century.

I'm not suggesting that we should be on the lookout for giant snakes, of course. As The New York Times' Andy Revkin reports, there's a lot of disagreement over exactly what the discovery of Titanoboa means in regard to climate.

But it's a pretty stark rejoinder to the folks who like to argue that earth's climate has been different in the past, so we shouldn"t worry too much about it heating it up now.

Yeah, it's been warmer, but it's also been a very different planet from the one on which humans emerged and built our civilization. We've developed our agriculture, our cities and our lives under a fairly narrow set of climate conditions.

If those conditions change radically in a very short time period, outside of what humans are accustomed to, we have no idea how well we'll deal with the consequences. We're potentially seeing climate changes that usually take thousands of years or more squeezed into a few decades.

You only have to look across the Atlantic this week at the havoc a few inches of snow have caused in London to see what happens when we get even a little bit outside of our comfort zone.

I don't know about you, but I'm hoping we don't wind up with a planet where giant snakes would feel right at home. Because that's waaay outside of my comfort zone.

Image: Artist's illustration of Titanoboa cerrejonensi, derived from fossil remains found in Colombia. (Credit: Jason Bourque)

This post originally appeared at NRDC's Switchboard blog.