Titanoboa once slithered the planet
A snake stretching longer than a school bus and too thick to fit through a doorway may sound like a creature in a Hollywood bio-horror flick, but this one actually ruled the roost on part of the planet millions of years ago.
Weighing 2,500 pounds and stretching 48 feet long, Titanoboa — whose name combines “titanic” for its size and “boa” for its close relation to modern-day boa constrictors — roamed the Earth 65 million years ago and was the largest snake that has ever lived.Titanoboa: Monster Snake, premiering Sunday at 8 p.m. ET on the Smithsonian Channel, gives viewers an insight into the life of a species that was once the largest predator on Earth. The special will also air Monday at 6 p.m. ET and be available for viewing on the channel’s website.
A life-size replica of the ancient snake appears in the film and was put on display at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, as of Friday. It will remain in Washington until Jan. 6, 2013, after which it will begin a nationwide tour through the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service.
“There’s no question that facts can be far stranger than fiction,” says David Royle, executive vice president of programming and production at the Smithsonian Channel. “You might say it sounds like Hollywood, but it’s not fantasy. It’s real-life discovery.”
The first fossils of Titanoboa were discovered in a coal mine in northeastern Colombia during an expedition led by the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute and the Florida Museum of Natural History in 2004. Fragments of the ancient snake’s skull — a rare find since snake skull bones typically break into shards because of their fragile structure — revealed that it could open its jaw nearly 180 degrees, allowing it to swallow a crocodile. Moreover, the snake could squeeze its prey at 400 pounds per square inch, equivalent to the weight of three Eiffel Towers on top of one another.
According to Jason Head of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the era’s warm climate allowed the snake to grow this large and cooling temperatures may be a possible explanation for the disappearance of the snakes.
“The bigger an animal is, the higher temperature it needs to survive,” says Head, a vertebrate paleontologist who helped conduct field work at the Colombian coal mine.
So is it possible for a snake of such enormity to come back into existence? Many scientists, including Head, say they would not rule out the possibility.
“I think if we saw global temperatures rise, we would see the living species of snakes potentially become larger,” says Jack Conrad, research associate at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. “But it would take a period of a couple million years to evolve a species that was anywhere near the size of Titanoboa.”
The coal mine site in Colombia has unveiled more than just one fascinating species. Scientists have also unearthed fossils of early bean, banana and chocolate plants as well as giant turtles and crocodiles, on which Titanoboa most likely preyed.
“We know so little about the tropical ecosystems of that time period that having any information is very valuable,” says Catherine Badgley, a researcher at the University of Michigan Museum of Paleontology. “The tropics were very unusual in ways that we would never be able to predict from modern ecosystems.”
For paleontologists, the discovery of Titanoboa is a reminder that the fossil record is full of surprises.
“Every year, you see some new mind-blowing example of paleontology shattering our previous boundaries and greatly expanding our understanding of the world,” Conrad says. “Titanoboa is a perfect example of that.”
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