• Carrie Gardner

Let's Go to Paleo!

Updated: Mar 30, 2020

Try to imagine back 65 million years ago. It is the Paleocene epoch, the ten million years period following the disappearance of the dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous. It is somewhere in South America, and it is hot. Much warmer than what it is today, averaging around 90 degrees. It is a vast swampy jungle. Everything was wetter and bigger. The size of the tree leaves suggests a precipitation amount of 150 inches per year. Today the Amazon “only” gets 80 inches this year. The hotter weather leads to bigger animals and fauna. If you think about it, where are the largest reptiles, trees, or bugs? In the sub-tropics and tropics. Well, this was no exception 65 million years ago. Fossil evidence does not disappoint here. Present-day at the Cerréjon formation in La Guajira, Columbia has finally shared some of her ancient secrets. In a coal mine, a team of researches were invited in to look around when they found fossils of large leaves, shaped to hold in water. The researchers, Jonathon Blont; vertebrate paleontologist at the University of Florida, Carlo Jaramillo, a paleontologist from the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama, Jason Head; paleontologist from the University of Nebraska, and a Smithsonian Institute intern, Jorge-Moreno-Bernal came in and started digging. What was found was extremely exciting is that the fossils recovered dated back to the Paleocene epoch. Few vertebrate fossils from the Paleocene were found in the ancient tropical environments of South America. This was a very important find.

The vertebrae of an anaconda on the left and titanoboa's vertebrae on the right. vert

They sent back many fossils. Mostly of large crocodiles and turtles. Turtles with an eight-foot carapace span, and crocodiles that were as long as an SUV. Some of these crocodiles reached 40 feet. With the approval of the Colombian government, the researchers sent the fossils back to the University of Florida to have them cleaned and identified. While working with what was presumed to be crocodile fossils, a vertebra was found that was not a crocodile and shocked everybody. It was a vertebra of a snake, but not a snake that anyone had ever seen before. This snake would’ve been very large...EXTREMELY large. In fact, they compared their discovery to a 17-foot anaconda they had, and the anaconda’s skeletal vertebra looked like a miniature snake next to the fossil.

Researchers estimated that the snake was a maximum of 40 to 50 feet, weighed 2,500 pounds and measured three-feet feet in diameter at the thickest point. In comparison, anacondas, our heaviest snake comes in at 450 pounds and 29 feet. Our longest snake, the reticulated python, can get up to 32 feet and 350 pounds. For those afraid of snakes, it could be much worse. Cruise ships would be the least popular vacation, and not from the norovirus.

Thus was born Titanoboa cerrjonesis, the largest snake found ever. Usurping the Gigantophis garstini, which lived 40 million years ago in the southern Sahara where Egypt and Algeria are now. Giantrophis reached between 31 to 35 ft, which is only 10% longer than the largest snakes in modern times.

The next step was to recreate titanboa into a life-size exhibit. The researchers had found 100 vertebra from 28 fossilized animals. However, a skull was needed for recreation.Unfortunately, snake skulls are made of small bones and are hardly ever found. But luck was on their side, and they did find three pieces of the skull around a specimen they had found at the dig site. Another problem was how to know where to fit the vertebrae in the spine. For this, they examined joints, ridges, and knobs of intact snakes, and described them as sets of coordinate points on a graph that was created for all snakes. Snake species naturally get bigger by adding more vertebrae. There are as many as 300 vertebrae in modern pythons, boas, and anacondas. After developing coordinates for individual vertebrae in the Titanoboa, they could place them in the correct positions to determine the length. The 100 pieces were all comparable in size even though they came from different specimens. In early 2009, the team published the first results that the snake was between 42-49 feet long, with a mean weight of a ton. To put it in perspective, it would be as long as a bus and be the weight of a small rhino.

As to what they ate? At first, it was presumed fish (after all, there were six-feet lungfish swimming around.) They could only guess as to what they ate as they didn’t have they didn't have the skull. Eventually, three skull pieces were discovered. Titanoboa's teeth were more closely compact than modern-day boas. However, they still thought that Titanoboa was an apex predator that ate anything, even crocodiles. They only thing they couldn’t eat an eight-foot wide turtle.

The skull didn’t help to determine whether Titanoboa was more closely related to the boa or the anaconda. It is thought to be a combination of the two species. Titanoboa may have looked more like a boa but behaved like an anaconda. With its immense weight, it would probably suffocate itself while on land. Their movements also would’ve been very slow. This is similar to anacondas, who also prefer water rather than land.

A beautiful rendering of titanoboa.

While all this was going on, they had commissioned an artist to make a full-scale replica of titanoboa. The final product was very dramatic and showed the titanoboa using gravity to swallow a crocodile. It had its head up in the air swallowing with the tail and hind feet sticking out. This was probably a correct representation, as the crocodiles were very big as well.

Can there be another Titanoboa on the planet? Theoretically, yes. Like I said earlier, all the large reptiles are in the hot, tropical areas. If temperatures were to rise dramatically in these areas, our modern-day snakes, who never stop growing, could reach a length of 40-50 feet. If this should happen, I recommend staying away from bodies of water in the tropics or the sub-tropics. We would be an appetizer to these guys. Pick up a Cheetos and pretend it's a human and you're a titanoboa.

Another stunning photograph of the titanoboa exhibit at the Smithsonian

I actually wrote this a few years ago. I saw proof that Titanoboa not only gets ginormous but they have actually been found to exist. There’s a another one out there as we speak. A monstrous 50-foot is out there somewhere. It’s robotic and will be used in a movie based loosely on titanoboa. It’s being released as a horror movie, guaranteeing that I won’t be seeing it.

Good night, sleep tight, don't let titanoboa bite!!

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