Largest Snake

What was 50’ feet long, a yard thick through the mid section, and weighed well over one and a quarter tons? One might be inclined to think of a long tailed, long necked dinosaur, or perhaps a shark or crocodilian, but the clue is in the scientific name. Titanoboa cerrejonensis is the name paleontologists know this formidable creature by and it means “Titanic boa from Cerrejon”, Cerrejon referencing the Cerrejon coal mines of La Guajirra, Columbia. It was in these ancient coal formations that numerous fossils of these amazing creatures were discovered in 2009. 

Titanoboa is by far the largest snake either living or extinct for which we have conclusive evidence. The South American anaconda of the Amazon and the reticulated python of Southeast Asia are the current living record holders. The largest reliably measured was a python just over 33 feet in length. The current length record for an anaconda is 28 feet, although anacondas too are believed to exceed 30 feet in a few rare specimens. Certainly much larger specimens are frequently reported, although not measured. 

The anaconda is a far more massive snake than the python, and thus a more reliable analog to the appearance of Titanoboa. 

The former extinct claimant to largest snake was Gigantophis, from Libyan and Egyptian discoveries dated at 39 million years ago. This snake consistently averaged over 33 feet in length but was still does not compare with the enormous Titanoboa. 

To get an idea of just how awe inspiring Titanoboa would have been, imagine a snake as long as a bus, weighing as much as a small car or pick up truck, and so thick that it would have difficulty squeezing through most ordinary doorways. 

Titanoboa lived in the Paleocene, the era just after the extinction event that killed the dinosaurs. The specimens found to date are from a span 60 to 58 million years in the past. Titanoboa represents the largest vertebrate of any kind to have been found from that period of time in what would have been the extreme tropics.

Believed to be aquatic in nature and non venomous, Titanoboa is thought to have preyed on crocodiles, turtles and large fish, and is considered to have been a constrictor. All in all it probably had a life style very much like that of the modern anaconda.

The first fossils were discovered in the Cerrejon open pit coal mine in 2007, and were extensively studied by paleontologist Jonathan Bloch of the University of Florida, and Carlos Jaramillo, paleobotanist with the Smithsonian Institute in 2009. Over 28 distinct specimens have been identified from fossils of varying completeness; as of 2011 no complete fossilized skeletons have been found. 

The discovery of this tropical giant has raised several illuminating points. First pertains to the overall temperature of the South American tropics of the Paleocene. Knowing what we know about the temperature requirements of modern tropical snakes it appears that Titanoboa needed an average temperature of around 91 degrees to survive and function. This raises estimates of Paleocene tropics temperatures by 5 or 6 degrees Fahrenheit over previous estimations. 

The second point is about the very nature of snake evolution. Prior to the discovery of Titanoboa 35 feet was thought to be the maximum size to which any snake was likely to grow, or ever had grown. The discovery of Titanoboa opens the door to the possibility of even larger specimens being discovered in the fossil record, and also raises questions about some modern reports from the Amazon. Are reports of 60, 80 and even 100 foot long anacondas to be dismissed out of hand? It would seem to be at least marginally possible that some of the more extreme reports of gigantic serpents may be true. 

The coal deposits at the Cerrejon Mine where Titanoboa was found are enormous and have not been fully searched for clues to Paleocene life forms. One can only look forward in eager anticipation to future and possibly equally astonishing discoveries.