Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Full-Figured Ancient Animals

(image: artist's rendering of Titanoboa cerrejonensia)

I've been preoccupied by the news story concerning the discovery of a skeleton in Colombia that appears to have belonged, perhaps to belong still (a difficult legal question), to an enormous snake--as big as a bus, according to Slate, and as heavy as a Volkswagen.

The article is by Nina Shen Rastogi.

Apparently this species of snake lived even before those creatures we call dinosaurs did. It lived in the Paleocene Era, although you couldn't prove it by me. Of course, scientists have already named the snake even though no one formally introduced them it/him/her: Titanoboa cerrejonensis. Scientists are not only presumptuous but also enamored of syllables, apparently. Let's call the thing Bo, pretending we're on a one-syllable basis with the snake.

Anyway, the article asks, not rhetorically, why pre-historic animals were so large. (I also want to know why we use the term "pre-historic" and simultaneously speak of eras, which imply a scheme of history.) One answer, of course, is not all of them were enormous.

Another answer, apparently, is that they had more time to grow. I wasn't reading the article that carefully, so I'm not sure what this means. Maybe it means the animals started school really late. On the radio, in relation to the same story, I heard that another reason may have been the average temperatures, which were higher than those now, and an even greater abundance of "fuel" to eat.

For self-centered reasons, I prefer to call these animals "full-figured" rather than "enormous" or "gigantic." Also, I think other reasons may explain their size:

1. The heretofore unknown existence of prehistoric pasta.

2. Prehistoric couches and large-screen televisions, featuring, as television must, shows about dinosaurs, even though dinosaurs didn't exist yet.

3. Prehistoric body-building. Some of the animals may have belonged to gyms, were young and single, wanted to look buff, and after a good work-out (and a shower, one hopes), they hit the prehistoric clubs.

4. Absence of humans. Just think about how much space we take up. (All of it.) Without us, there was plently of room for full-figured prehistoric animals. Individual animals could think of a meadow as a twin-bed, for example.

5. This one springs from even more radical speculation and derives from B-movies: The individuals whose skeletons we have discovered were full-figured, but they were mutants, preferably from outer space. What I'm getting at is this: Is there any proof that there was more than one of these massive (sorry, full-figured) snakes in prehistoric Colombia? No. Pure extrapolation. Full-figured speculation, if you ask me, and you didn't.
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