Not Exactly Rocket Science

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Blogging on Peer-Reviewed Research This is sure to be one of the most amazing scientific images of the year. You’re looking at vertebrae from two species of snake. The smaller model on the left belongs to the anaconda, a giant serpent that can grow to 7 metres in length and weigh as much as 45kg. It’s arguably the largest snake alive, so just think about how big the owner of the fossilised vertebra on the right would have been! There’s a good reason why this new discovery – the largest snake that ever slithered – has been named Titanoboa.

Titanoboa cerrejonesis is new to science and was discovered by a team of North American scientists led by Jason Head at the University of Toronto. It’s the latest fossil to emerge from Colombia’s Cerrejon coal mine, one of the world’s largest open-pit mines and an unexpected bonanza of prehistoric reptile fossils.

The giant serpent is closely related to today’s boas and anacondas, snakes that kill their prey with suffocating coils. Living boas come in various sizes, but their similar proportions gave Head the data he needed to work out how big Titanoboa actually was. The backbones of boas are similar enough that, with help from a computer, you can tell where any individual vertebra sits down the length of the snake by looking at its shape. And you can take an accurate stab at the length of the entire snake based on the size of each vertebra – all members have the same number of segments, and their size is proportional to the animal’s length.

Titanoboa‘s fossilised vertebra showed that it was a whopping 13 metres (42 feet) long. By comparison, the largest verifiable record for a living snake belongs to a 10-metre-long reticulated python, and that was probably a striking exception.  Large population surveys of reticulated pythons have failed to find individuals longer than 6 metres. By contrast, Head’s team analysed vertebrae from eight different specimens of Titanoboa and found that all of them were roughly the same size. A length of 13 metres was fairly ordinary for this extraordinary serpent. Not quite Jormungandr, but amazing nonetheless.

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Even fossil snakes struggle to match Titanoboa‘s dimensions. Five years ago, Head’s group used the same techniques to put measurements on the previous record holder, Gigantophis. Their study gave it a maximum length of 10.7 metres, easily eclipsed by their latest discovery. 

Titanoboa was also a hefty creature. Using the length-weight ratios of a rock python and an anaconda as a guide, Head estimated that Titanoboa weighed in at over 1.3 tons. That’s almost thirty times as heavy as the anaconda, the bulkiest species alive today. Its superlative measurements mean that Titanoboa was not only the largest snake in history, but also the largest land-living vertebrate following the demise of the dinosaurs.

It lived some 58-60 million years ago, when the Cerrejon basin was a giant floodplain, criss-crossed by rivers and nestled within a large tropical rainforest. This is exactly the type of habitat that anacondas thrive in today, and it’s likely that Titanoboa shared a similar lifestyle. It may well have been aquatic and hunted similar prey, like crocodiles. Indeed, other fossils from the Cerrejon pit include early relatives of fishes, turtles and crocodiles – all suitable prey for Titanoboa.

The giant snake’s measurements even tell us something about the climate of this ancient world. Snakes are cold-blooded. Their body temperature, and therefore their metabolism, depends on their surroundings, which slaps an upper limit onto the evolution of giants. At any given temperature, a snake can only become so large before its metabolic rate becomes too low to support its bulk. If Titanoboa was bigger than living species, its environment must have been much hotter.

Head estimated that the tropical rainforests where it lived must have had average yearly temperature of 32-33 degrees Celsius, far hotter than the equivalent temperatures for modern tropical forests. These estimates suggest that the forests of that period were experiencing greenhouse conditions. These conditions, part of the planet’s history, have been written in stone, left for us to glean among the petrified bones of an ancient snake.

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Reference: Jason J. Head, Jonathan I. Bloch, Alexander K. Hastings, Jason R. Bourque, Edwin A. Cadena, Fabiany A. Herrera, P. David Polly, Carlos A. Jaramillo (2009). Giant boid snake from the Palaeocene neotropics reveals hotter past equatorial temperatures Nature, 457 (7230), 715-717 DOI: 10.1038/nature07671

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Images: Reconstruction of Titanboa by Jason Bourque. Vertebra picture by Kenneth Krysko

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Update: This was Bora’s idea

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Comments

  1. #1 Laelaps
    February 4, 2009

    All the more justification for b-movie studios to keep producing Anaconda sequels.

  2. #2 Ed Yong
    February 4, 2009

    Heh. In lieu of the recent Maiacetus, what I want to see if a fully preserved Titanoboa with a fossilised Jon Voight in its stomach.

  3. #3 Glendon Mellow
    February 4, 2009

    Are they making another Indiana Jones movie? They still have to make up for the “it’s slimy” comment in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

    Indy versus Titanoboa.

  4. #4 Lilian Nattel
    February 4, 2009

    Wow. I wonder if this is where legends of serpents come from, and if global warming will see these kinds of giant snakes again.

  5. #5 Laelaps
    February 4, 2009

    Glendon; Ford is getting, as they say, “too old for this shit,” so the next “Indy” might be Shia leBeef, I mean, leBeouf. Not a bad target for Titanoboa to exact revenge on behalf of snakes everywhere.

  6. #6 Coturnix
    February 4, 2009

    Watching ‘Anaconda’ movies over and over again is one of my secret sins…

  7. #7 Christie
    February 4, 2009

    Somehow “Holy F*cking Sh*t” just doesn’t seem to cover it…

    And to Lilian – God, I hope not.

  8. #8 Ed Yong
    February 4, 2009

    Lol@Christie. I’ve said this on Twitter, but this entire post was essentially padding for me repeatedly going: “F**K!!! BIG SNAKE!!! THAT’S HUGE!!!!”

    Also, see new Titanoboa on a Plane image added above.

  9. #9 Greg Laden
    February 4, 2009

    I’ve seen snakes almost this big.

  10. #10 Paul Filmer
    February 4, 2009

    Thanks for one of the best pieces covering this, Ed. I had to laugh when I saw that my quote in the NSF release had been dropped from most wire coverage for using the dreaded ‘poikilotherm’ word… Cheers.

  11. #11 khan
    February 4, 2009

    Big F*** Snake.

  12. #12 Christopher Taylor
    February 5, 2009

    According to the paper in Nature, the smaller vertebra in the top photo isn’t from an anaconda, it’s from a boa constrictor (Boa constrictor). While an impressive snake in its own right, B. constrictor is only about half the size of an anaconda.

  13. #13 Ed Yong
    February 5, 2009

    I realised that, but in the press pack that included all the extra photos, the one above is very definitely captioned as an anaconda.

  14. #14 Dunc
    February 5, 2009

    Regardless of whether the comparison vertebra is a boa or an anaconda, that’s a honking big snake.

  15. #15 shiva
    February 5, 2009

    If that is a Boa constrictor rather than Eunectes murinus* vertebra, then that makes a bit more sense, since Titanoboa was around twice the average length of Eunectes, and that vertebra is nearly 4 times the diameter of the other one – which would have made Titanoboa twice as *proportionately* thick as an anaconda (which IIRC is already one of the proportionately thickest snakes). Still incredibly impressive tho…

    How big were the biggest contemporaneous crocodilians? I was under the impression that there were some crocs in the multi-ton league not too long after the K/T boundary…

    Of course, all the cryptozoology forums are going to jump on this straight away and call it proof of the sucuriju gigante, conveniently ignoring the fact that it lived nearly as long ago as the last non-avian dinosaurs. (Then again, i suppose it’s not beyond the bounds of belief that *fossils* of Titanoboa could have been found and contributed to such legends…)

    *What is it with really big animals and names comparing them to mice? E. murinus, Balaenoptera musculus… did Linnaeus have a really weird sense of humour?

  16. #16 Zach Miller
    February 5, 2009

    Holy crap!

  17. #17 Christopher Taylor
    February 5, 2009

    I’ve been corrected by Jason Head himself, who assures me that the vertebra in the press release photo is from a green anaconda.

  18. #18 Ed Yong
    February 5, 2009

    Excellent – thanks for clearing that up Chris.

  19. #19 MattLab
    February 5, 2009

    What can we conclude about the reproductive strategies of this animal? Would the same conditions which limit Elephants to relatively long gestation periods apply in this climate and to members of the class Reptilla?

  20. #20 Ed Yong
    February 6, 2009

    On a separate note, I mock the Huffington Post for their headline: 2,500-Pound Snake Could Eat A Cow.

    OMG – a COW!!!! You mean, just like modern pythons could do? FAIL.

  21. #21 Valerie
    February 6, 2009

    Wow. This is definitely a sci-fi original movie waiting to happen (if it hasn’t already). I mean, they already had the mutated snakehead movie and the hammerhead shark-man-thing movie and I think something with wyverns in it.

  22. #22 casey jane
    February 7, 2009

    science has found something much scarier than any sci-fi movie!

  23. #23 draco
    February 7, 2009

    Judging from the size of the titanoboa one can easily assume it could easily swallow a grown human. It makes you glad that it’s extinct because you wouldn’t want to run into that thing if it were alive and breathing.

  24. #24 Phil Goetz
    February 18, 2009

    What did they eat?

    “Fishes and turtles” seems unlikely. Constrictors smother their prey. Fishes and turtles would be very difficult for a snake to smother.

  25. #25 Ed Yong
    February 20, 2009

    The authors seem to favour the idea of crocodiles as the preferred menu item.

  26. #26 Christine Yee
    February 23, 2009

    Dear Sir,

    We would like to feature invite Titanoba in our magazine for the students.

    iKnow Magazine is an edutainment lifestyle magazine, designed for the students. It is a free magazine for academic institutions (from primary schools to colleges).
    The magazines are placed in the library, class reading corner and public places of schools.

    I would like to seek for your permission to use and republish the photos (artist’s impression of the giant Titanoboa cerrejonensis and the Vertebrae).

    Thank you for your attention and hope to hear from you ASAP!

    Cheers,
    Christine

  27. #27 Lutz Dirksen
    March 15, 2009

    An anaconda can grow up to 9 meter and weigh up to 200 kg.
    The compared vertebra on the picture is not one from an big speciman finally.

    There are more possibilities for prey in the Paleocene of South America, for example opossum-like marsupialians or huger mammals called Notoungulata and Litopterna. Anacondas usually do not hunt turtles and crocodilians, unlikely that Titanoboa did. Smaller Titanobaos were able to hunt on the ground too, instead the big ones, they only lived into the water.

  28. #28 Arlindo Correia
    March 20, 2009

    A long time ago I had a thump in my heart when I unexpectadly crossed a 10 inch snake and keep curious about them. I enjoyed your article about Titanoboa.
    Yesterday a friend sent me a video named cobra.wmv with 1819 MB, that shows a big snake (8-10 meters) in some sort of industrial premises, and it seems to attack the camera man. If you´re interested I can send it to you – tell me how.

  29. #29 Ronilo T. Bermudo
    April 30, 2009

    i like titanoboa because it’s so very long constrictor it is longest SNAKE and biggest

  30. #30 Tiffany Jewelry
    August 25, 2009

    OMG! That so nausea….. I dont like the snake

  31. #31 Hank
    October 1, 2009

    Yeah this stone can help to caught the snake Wedding rings.

  32. #32 abercrombie
    October 31, 2009

    I would like to seek for your permission to use and republish the photos (artist’s impression of the giant Titanoboa cerrejonensis and the Vertebrae).

    Thank you for your attention and hope to hear from you ASAP!

  33. #33 Links of London
    December 22, 2009

    It makes you glad that it’s extinct because you wouldn’t want to run into that thing if it were alive and breathing.

  34. #34 tiffany
    January 20, 2010

    A long time ago I had a thump in my heart when I unexpectadly crossed a 10 inch snake and keep curious about them. I enjoyed your article about Titanoboa.

  35. #35 louis vuitton
    February 22, 2010

    would like to seek for your permission to use and republish the photos (artist’s impression of the giant Titanoboa cerrejonensis