Global warming to create horses like cats, snakes like horses?

I'm not sure we're ready for this, but global warming may ruin horse racing -- if paleontologists' descriptions (and prognostications) are to be believed.

The Titanoboa. Not immediately friendly. Smithsonian Channel/YouTube Screenshot by Chris Matyszczyk/CNET

It's been fairly well established that our planet is headed down the Swanee and the only issue remaining is the actual date of our arrival.

However, a few changes might occur before then, some of them a touch alarming.

My breakfast has been affected by an NBC News report that warns of certain size alterations in animal life caused by global warming.

This doesn't seem to include the ever-expanding girths of humans. Rather, some of the planet's most familiar animals might become less familiar and even downright frightening.

NBC News points to a speech given last week by paleontologist Jonathan Bloch from the Florida Museum of Natural History.

Speaking at ScienceWriters 2013, Bloch reminded everyone that, during previous periods of global warming, snakes were as big as horses and horses were the size of cats.

Personally, the idea of snakes at all fills me with dread. But the notion that they could be as long as a bus and as thick as a horse makes me want to sign up for Newt Gingrich's moon colony .

Bloch, though, worries that the carbon dioxide levels we are currently experiencing aren't too far off from those of the very hot Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum. That's when not only snakes were vast, but horses were tiny little things that could fit into the most economical of caves.

I know that Barbie has had little horses for quite some years, but the mere thought that they could skip around the house and join you on the sofa for "Dancing With the Stars" is faintly disturbing.

But all the evidence suggests that during the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, some 56 million to 65 million years ago, reptiles were enormous and mammals were tiny.

Bloch spoke of the Cerrejon Mine in Colombia, a place of active, hot coal seams and fascinating fossils.

There, he discovered fossils of turtles as big as breakfast tables and a special snake, the Titanoboa, that was so big that even Samuel L. Jackson wouldn't be able to cope if he found it on a plane. (I have embedded a little film about this reptile.)

To excite his audience, Bloch told them: "Imagine that the snake would have to squeeze through the door, and come up to your waist."

Imagine.

You might be wondering what kind of temperature increases might lead to such reptilian increases. Scientists estimate that it would take a mere hike of 9-14 degrees Fahrenheit for our natural world to seem a touch unnatural.

No one's quite sure exactly why these size differences might occur. In the case of the shrinking horses, they theorize that perhaps mammals struggle with regulating their body heat and plant food is not as readily available.

It's not so easy to imagine a world where the animals shift shape and cause unimaginable new threats.

So make sure you recycle every week, take fewer flights, and hike a lot. That way, we'll all avoid the gargantuan snakes for just a little longer.

 

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