Titanoboa: The Biggest Snake That Ever Lived
The Giant Snake
Earth in the Paleocene
A Contender for Top Predator
Travel Back in Time
Sixty five million years ago, the giant dinosaurs, those icons of prehistory now permanently entrenched in popular culture, vanished from the face of the Earth. But they did leave behind a vicious legacy, a distant reptilian cousin of monstrous proportions that make its modern relatives seem like mere worms. In order, to learn more about this creature, we have to travel through the vastness of deep time, back to an era known as the Palaeocene, roughly 58 million years ago.
At this time, the catastrophic asteroid impact that eliminated the dinosaurs and many other large animals was already a distant memory. Earth had long since recovered; the climate had stabilised, and had returned to largely what it had been prior to the extinction event, hot and humid. The so called greenhouse effect that wrapped the Earth in a warm, cosy carbon blanket allowed tropical forests to spread right across the world, even the poles were green and lush at this point.
A fierce battle now commenced for supremacy over the land among the remaining large animals. One of the competitors was actually one of the dinosaurs that had managed to survive. Although, if we were to glimpse this monster, we would refer to it as a bird (most scientists today recognise that birds are in fact feathered dinosaurs- based on anatomical similarities and DNA). It stood roughly ten feet tall, was covered in feathers, had a huge, razor sharp beak, and more worryingly for our tiny mammalian ancestors, had an insatiable taste for meat.
Another competitor for supremacy was a gigantic snake, in fact the word gigantic is really rather an understatement. Imagine walking through a hot, humid steamy South American jungle, all of a sudden the vegetation rustles violently. Very soon, you come face to face with a snake weighing more than a tonne, and measuring 50 feet in length. This snake was so large that it could swallow an entire crocodile whole without showing a bulge, so a human being would represent a mere light snack. To give you an idea of just how large this monster was, the biggest snake alive today; the giant anaconda is just half the size.
A Giant Today...A Worm Compared to its Ancestor
Imagine if Indiana Jones Ever Met This Monster
Comparing Titanoboa with History's Deadliest Predators
Giants of the Past
The snake is thought to be a distant relative of both the anaconda and boa constrictor. Scientists have aptly christened it Titanoboa. Like its relatives, it did not bite, nor was it venomous. Instead, it was a constrictor, except that the forces involved were truly mind boggling. Titanoboa was able to crush its prêt with the constricting force of 400Ibs per square inch; this is equivalent of lying under the weight of one and a half Brooklyn Bridges.
Titanoboa was actually first exposed by an excavation at the Cerrejon open coal mine in Colombia in 2002. It quickly became clear to the scientists that they had stumbled across a lost world, a 58 million year old forest. As you would expect, the site was littered with fossilised leaves and plants, but they also found plenty of animal fossils. The most impressive of these by far, were the reptiles; some were so big that they literally defied even the most fertile imaginations.
The Palaeocene was an age of huge turtles, bigger than your average kitchen table and was also home to the biggest crocodiles ever known. But Titanoboa was the most exciting find of all. Initially they only found the vertebrae, but the sheer size of it offered vital clues to the enormous scale of the animal.
Indeed, this snake reigned supreme as the top predator on Earth for ten million years, effectively seizing supremacy from the dinosaurs. Its glorious reign unfortunately came to an end, probably through global cooling, and increased competition from other reptiles and also a new batch of recently evolved mammalian predators. At this time, the mammals underwent a tremendous radiation, evolving into a variety of different forms. In fact, this was the time when many modern mammal families first appeared, including our own, the primates.
While the scientists were conscious of Titanoboa’s enormity, they needed to uncover a skull in order to get a fuller picture. So, off they went back to South America to find the elusive missing piece. Expectations though, weren’t particularly high, as snake skulls normally do not preserve very well. The reason is that, unlike our own, snake skulls are connected with tissue, rather than fused together like ours, this explains why they can open their jaws extremely wide. If an animal with a fused skull like ours attempted such a thing, then the result would be a broken jaw. Due to their extraordinary skull design, when a snake normally dies, all of the connective tissue decomposes, as do all of the individual bones, but Titanoboa’s enormous proportions mean that it’s one of the few members of its family to actually make it into the fossil record.
Not only did the scientists find a skull, they actually found three, enabling them to accurately reconstruct the giant for the first time. They also learnt, that just like modern snakes, the females were much larger than the male, and were also able to gain valuable insights into Earth’s climate at the time, and perhaps give us a tantalising glimpse into the possible side effects of our present global warming episode. How did they do this? Well, snakes being reptiles are unable to regulate their own body temperature and have to rely on external heat sources to survive. The scientists theorise that Titanoboa managed to attain its enormous size because it was much warmer in the equatorial regions 60 million years ago, it may also explain the evolution of giant turtles and crocodiles.
This ability to thrive in warmer climates could be of great relevance to our present situation, and serve as proof that life is more resilient than we think. It could well be, that reptiles prove to be the ultimate winners in a world artificially warmed by the activities of humanity.
- Titanoboa comes back to life! Smithsonian recreates world's biggest snake - a 48-foot monster which
A terrifying 48-foot, 2,500 foot predator that slithered through rainforests 60 million years ago has been brought back to life by the Smithsonian.
- Titanoboa: Monster Snake | Smithsonian Channel
A link to the Smithsonians documentary on Titanoboa
Could the Giant Snakes Ever Return?
Of course, the chances of Titanoboa itself returning are nil, but could one of its modern relatives ever stride down the same evolutionary path? Admittedly scientists are less certain about the effects of sudden temperature change, such as the one that’s occurred over the last century and a half. One thing that is known though, is that life is amazingly adaptable. Often wholesale changes, both in climate and the environment can fuel the fires of evolution.
In Titanoboa’s time, the levels of CO2 present in the atmosphere were 50% higher than today. It sounds extraordinary to us that life can even survive at such extremes. But it really does seem that tropical plants and the entire tropical ecosystem have an uncanny ability to cope with high temperatures, and high levels of carbon as well. If current trends prove to be accurate, then there is a very good chance that a snake like the giant anaconda could take the same evolutionary path as Titanoboa, but of course such monumental changes would take millions of years, but the fact that it is within the realms of possibility, make it thoroughly intriguing.