Ode to Titanoboa

i-87e6150725f621183b236b68b361d42e-Titanoboa_5-2-2009.jpg

No time for anything new: too busy desperately trying to make money. So I'd like to bring your attention to Head et al.'s (2009) paper on the amazing new gargantuan snake Titanoboa cerrejonensis from the Palaeocene of Colombia, and also to Ed Yong's fine discussion of the paper at Not Exactly Rocket Science. Surprisingly, perhaps, Titanoboa was not a madtsoiid, but a boid related to modern anacondas and boas. The several specimens represent individuals 13 m long and perhaps 1.1 tons in weight. Staggering. For a review of pre-Titanoboa giant snakes please see Stupidly large snakes, the story so far.

Back to work...

Ref - -

Head, J. J., Bloch, J. I., Hastings, A. K., Bourque, J. R., Cadena, E. A., Herrera, F. A., Polly, P. D. & Jaramillo, C. A. 2009. Giant boid snake from the Palaeocene neotropics reveals hotter past equatorial temperatures Nature 457, 715-717.

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A restoration of Titanoboa (foreground) in its natural setting. (By Jason Bourque, image from Wikipedia.) When I was growing up I used to spend hours poring over the Time/Life series of nature books in my little library, absolutely enthralled by images of strange creatures from all over the world,…

Titanboa is also mentioned in:

Huber, Matthew. 2009. Climate change: Snakes tell a torrid tale Nature 457, 669.

"All that said, these implications are based on a new type of proxy: Head and colleaguesâ findings are the result of probably the first study in âsnake palaeothermometryâ, and as such must be viewed with caution. Is the empirical link between size and temperature really generalizable and accurate? Could the ability to lose heat be an important limitation for these giant snakes, rendering Head and colleaguesâ extrapolations moot? Can a few vertebrae truly provide accurate estimates of snake size? Why have similarly giant snakes not been found in other warm intervals?"

South America held other oversized animals - giant rodent, turtle - some Uber-Pantanal in Tertiary?

BTW - I don't follow the link between temperature and snake size.

Isn't it exactly opposite to the usual theory - that very large ectotherms tend towards 'gigantothermy' and are less dependent from temperature than smaller ones?

I am awed by this superb animal. I know I usually set the Threshhold of Interestingless at 10^4 kg, but this is only an order of magnitude short, which I think we can overlook in a snake.

Having said that ... isn't a one-tonne snake enough? Am I the only one getting a bit tired of the ubiquitous portrayal of every new paper as having something to say about climate change? What's next? A New Fragmentary Sauropod From The Wealden Supergroup Of Southern England: Implications For Global Warming?

Why have similarly giant snakes not been found in other warm intervals?

Because the big theropods would have eaten them. In the Paleocene, Titanoboa was the largest vertebrate, period.

By David MarjanoviÄ (not verified) on 05 Feb 2009 #permalink

Would big theropods have been much of a problem for an aquatic snake?

By Andreas Johansson (not verified) on 05 Feb 2009 #permalink

A horror movie come to life! This gigantic constrictor gives a small hint of the spectacular life forms that once flourished on earth, before it became crowded with, and altered in destructive ways, by humans.I can't wait to find out more.

By Raymond Minton (not verified) on 05 Feb 2009 #permalink

"No time for anything new: too busy desperately trying to make money."

I hear that. Making money's great as long as you aren't stealing from anyone, hurting anyone, or violating their rights.

By sinuous_tanyst… (not verified) on 05 Feb 2009 #permalink

Would big theropods have been much of a problem for an aquatic snake?

No, but the mosasaurs would have.

spectacular life forms that once flourished on earth, before it became crowded with, and altered in destructive ways, by humans.

Sixty million years before that, in fact. Whatever the reason is that Titanoboa died out, it's not us.

By David MarjanoviÄ (not verified) on 05 Feb 2009 #permalink

If (as was said in the comments over there) 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?

"Boids"? Really?

By Nathan Myers (not verified) on 05 Feb 2009 #permalink

If (as was said in the comments over there) that is a Boa constrictor rather than Eunectes murinus* vertebra

I was the person who posted the Boa constrictor i.d., as I believed the vertebra in the press release photo to be the same one identified as such in the Nature paper. I've since made a direct enquiry to Jason Head, who assures me that the vertebra in the press release photo is a green anaconda.

David: the point of what I was saying was the lack of room for giant animals in a human-dominated world. I wasn't trying to say Titanoboa and humans were contemporaries.

By Raymond Minton (not verified) on 05 Feb 2009 #permalink

David:

No, but the mosasaurs would have.

I was going to point out that 'Mosasaurs did not live in freshwater'. But then a little googling taught me that apparently there were indeed mosasaurs in freshwater (Holmes et al. 1999).

(I always learn something new on Tet Zoo. Who says zoos aren't educational?)

Reference:

Holmes, R., Caldwell, M.W. & Cumbaa, S.L. 1999. A new specimen of Plioplatecarpus (Mosasauridae) from the lower Maastrichtian of Alberta: comments on allometry, functional morphology, and paleoecology. Canadian Journal of Earth Sciences 36, 363-369.

Freshwater mosasaurs: the animal in question, Plioplatecarpus, may well have visited, or even lived in, brackish and freshwater environments (Holmes et al. 1999). However, these animals are unlikely to have been in the shallow rivers, ponds and lakes normally associated with big amphibious snakes. There were also freshwater plesiosaurs in the Cretaceous (the leptocleidids), some of which were small (less than 3 m long). As David said, however, theropods would perhaps have been the biggest problem for snakes during the Mesozoic. Giant theropods could easily wade into an average pond or lake and take out a biggish snake, and there were specialised long-snouted 'fishing' theropods (the spinosaurs) as late as the Cenomanian.

Shiva asked about big crocs contemporaneous with Titanoboa. Most of the gigantic crocs (purussaurs, Rhamphosuchus) were Miocene, and the Palaeocene taxa (which include dyrosaurids, sebecosuchians, Necrosuchus and other alligatoroids) mostly seem 'average': viz, 3-4 m long or so. Indeed, Head et al. suggest that such animals were the normal prey of Titanoboa.

Dyrosaurids might have been large enough, but they were marine animals, *Dyrosaurus* was a gharial-like fish eater, *Phosphatosuchus*, judging by its dentition, crushed something hard, maybe turtles or hard-shelled invertebrates (and note that those large forms are from the Eocene, slighly younger than *Titanoboa*). Sebecosuchians were ziphodont terrestrial predators. Neither dyrosurids or sebecosuchians would have competed with or preyed on a freshwater snake on a regular basis, even if they were big enough.

Let me add that I wasn't suggesting or implying anything about competition/niche overlap between the giant boa and large crocodilians: rather, I was (in response to Shiva's comment) simply listing some of Palaeocene croc diversity. But, anyway, I agree with what Johannes just said.

Time for some mild devil's advocacy...

Darren:

theropods would perhaps have been the biggest problem for snakes during the Mesozoic. Giant theropods could easily wade into an average pond or lake and take out a biggish snake, and there were specialised long-snouted 'fishing' theropods (the spinosaurs) as late as the Cenomanian.

Yes, that is certainly plausible, and indeed probable. But I would still call for a little caution when making that assumption. After all, for decades the received wisdom was that all Mesozoic mammals were nothing but rat-sized dinosaur snacks. Then Repanomanus was discovered. So I wouldn't be quite so certain that a giant snake couldn't possibly have eked out a living in the Mesozoic, the presence of dinosaurs notwithstanding.

the shallow rivers, ponds and lakes normally associated with big amphibious snakes.

That's the preferred habitat of the anacondas, yes. But for the record and for what it's worth: the second largest living snake, the reticulated python Python reticulatus, does not shy away from occasionally swimming in the open sea, even though that sea contains both saltwater crocodiles and sharks. In fact, reticulated pythons were among the first vertebrates to colonise the remnants of the island of Krakatoa (more than 40 km from the nearest larger islands) after the 1883 eruption, and Rawlinson et al. (1990:14) were of the opinion that this 'is most likely to have been by active swimming'.

Reference:

Rawlinson, P.A., Widjoya, A.H.T., Hutchinson, M.N. & Brown, G.W. 1990. The terrestrial vertebrate fauna of the Krakatau Islands, Sunda Strait, 1883-1886. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London B 328, 3-28.

Well, ok: I've certainly made the point before that the Mesozoic wasn't a 'dinosaurs only theme park'. The fact remains that the presence of giant theropods does present a possible answer to the question of 'why were there no giant terrestrial snakes in the Mesozoic'.

As for giant snakes in the marine realm.. well, ok, I didn't know we were talking about those. I won't say any more - it'll be in the palaeophiid article (which I hope to produce over the next couple of weeks).

1883-1886

Erm, that should be 1883-1986. Errare humanum est. Or, in my case, errare australopithecanum est.

"Am I the only one getting a bit tired of the ubiquitous portrayal of every new paper as having something to say about climate change?"

You aren't, but it seems that including the magic words is the best way to get a paper published in Nature or Science these days, rather like the near-compulsory Lenin quotation in Russian papers before 1991.

Of course the notion that large poikilotherms can only live in the constantly warm tropics is nonsense. There are alligators in North Carolina, where it was snowing yesterday. Other obvious counterexamples are Wonambi and Megalania which occurred as far south as Narracoorte and the Melbourne area, where it gets definitely nippy in winter. Also Geochelone turtles in the southern US.
It does seem that large poikilotherms can't live in areas where temperatures go below freezing for long periods, while dinosaurs could, and can.

By Tommy Tyrberg (not verified) on 06 Feb 2009 #permalink

As with some of the other comments I am not convinced by the conclusions reached about the temperature of the forest in which this amazing beast lived. It seems at best tenuous, and I think in conflict with conclusions based on other evidence.

For example other studies based on palaeoflora of the same formation suggest the temperature was similar to, and not significantly warmer than current equatorial temperatures. For example: Herrera, Wing & Jaramillo, 2005

It is also noted that the flora was of relatively low diversity for a tropical forest, and indicated possibly swamp-like conditions. Though I get the impression (possibly wrong) from a variety of sources that Mid-to-Upper Paleocene rainforests such as that one, were less diverese than modern rainforests anyway, with diversity approaching modern levels only being acheived in the Eocene. I'd be interested to know if that is correct, any thoughts?

By Mark Lees (not verified) on 06 Feb 2009 #permalink

the near-compulsory Lenin quotation in Russian papers before 1991

I've never seen such a quotation, and I've seen several Russian papers from before 1991â¦

By David MarjanoviÄ (not verified) on 06 Feb 2009 #permalink

BTW, the crocodylian in the background looks a bit like purussaurus, but as we all know, this species was much younger. So is this an artistic anachronism or another bulky and short-faced crocodylian from the Paleocene?

Re Low-diversity rainforest in the Paleocene.
This is definitely true for rainforests of similar age in North America. The Early Paleocene rainforests in the Denver Basin are quite low in diversity. As a matter of fact there seems to be few if any good examples of true closed-canopy rainforest known before the Paleocene, so it may have been quite a young biome at that time. One fascinating idea is that "dinoturbation" was so intensive in the Cretaceous that closed-canopy forests simply did not exist, and that the modern rainforest actually originated in the Paleocene.

By Tommy Tyrberg (not verified) on 07 Feb 2009 #permalink

I've seen a few people now, presume that the croc in the illustration, was _Purussuarus_-like. I just don't see it. The short, deep snout reminds me more of a baurusuchid (or some of the really strange crocs that Sereno's team discovered), than _Purussaurus_.

Yes, I already realized that it doens´t look exactly like Purussaurus. It is really a shame that this great piece of palaeo-artwork is only available so small, so it is really hard to see much details. I know there were a lot of highly cool crocs around at South America, for example Sebecus.

Sordes, the full size illustration is here (Thanks to Carl Buell who posted the link over at Pharyngula.)

There seems to have been some large crocs by that time as well as turtles, the one in the illustration might be something Stupendemys-like, maybe smaller, is hard to tell in an illustration full of "giants".

@Tommy Tyrberg: The length of time below freezing as a critical thing makes sense. Alligators are pretty marginal in North Carolina -- they're in the coastal plains, but it was on the local news when one turned up in Lake Wylie, which is only in the Piedmont, not the mountains.

By William Miller (not verified) on 09 Feb 2009 #permalink

My cousin told me about a snake in S.E. Asia when he was in the U.S. Special Forces that they mistook for a log and used it to cross over a stream and saw the head pop up downstream. A friend in the U.K. Special Forces confirmed that he also saw snakes that large in S.E. Asia. How long would a snake have to be if it was roughly 2.5 to 3 feet in diameter? (their estimates were both roughly 40 feet but then they were busy throwing grenades and running).

A snake that's 90 cm in diameter? That's crazy. I guess (!) Titanoboa might have reached that, but that basically is it.

By David MarjanoviÄ (not verified) on 12 Feb 2009 #permalink

Raymond Minton said

spectacular life forms that once flourished on earth, before it became crowded with, and altered in destructive ways, by humans.

then
David MarjanoviÄ said

Sixty million years before that, in fact. Whatever the reason is that Titanoboa died out, it's not us.

Surely the Flintstones' ilk drove them to extinction? The details escape me but I seem to recall a brutal habit of luring these snakes to burrow into desirable mineral strata, then killing them and leaving their bones in situ to serve as pit-props in the ready-made mine tunnel.

A cruel waste fuelled by greed. Will man ever learn?

By Graham King (not verified) on 12 Feb 2009 #permalink

David
It's much easier to estimate the diameter of something under your feet than the length. But let's assume that they overestimated and call it 1.5 to 2 feet (a reasonable enough error and still large enough to mistake for a log and use to cross a stream). Would that still not make it longer than 10 meters?

I never saw any large snakes over there personally but did see some very strange insects and felines the sizes and shapes of which I had never read about. Jungles are like that.

Well, here we go again! It's a shame when you have to explain the same thing twice! Mr. King, I was talking about the fact that the phenomenon of giant animals is a thing of the past because of human activities, I did not say humans and Titanoboa lived at the same time (and if you bothered to read my response, you would have known that!) I do not now, nor have I ever, subscribed to young earth creationism or "The Flintstones" view of prehistory, and have always taken issue with those who do! I hope this finally ends this little pseudo-controversy, because I've become quite bored with it!

By Raymond Minton (not verified) on 14 Feb 2009 #permalink

My cousin told me about a snake in S.E. Asia when he was in the U.S. Special Forces that they mistook for a log and used it to cross over a stream and saw the head pop up downstream.

Ed, what you describe sounds like a textbook example of a situation where a snake's length could very easily be significantly overestimated.

We have:
-poor visibility: the snake is partially/mostly submerged;
-startlement (panic, even) caused by the sudden encounter;
-observers who have little/no experience with the local wildlife (not being native to the region).

All in all, not particularly good circumstances for making accurate length estimates. As reports of giant snakes go, I'm afraid that encounter must remain in the 'Unverified' category.

Dartian
'Unverified' and undocumented. I assume that his recollection of length was off which is why I asked if anyone could qive me a guesstimate assuming a given girth. Four americans and 40 Thai (a "B" team) crossed over it like a bridge. So it had to be fairly rigid as well (perhaps it had just eaten). His estimated size of the "log" was between 2.5 and 3 feet in diameter (I can't relate to metric). Would 10 meters (over ~33 feet) in length be proportionate? (This is only 7 feet short of his estimate).

Dartian
Sorry, His words were "the head popped up about 40 feet downstream" which is why I find it hard to believe so I assumed that it was as you described as "significantly overestimated". I would like to know what he actually encountered.

Ed Pardo: 2.5to 3 feet in diameter would be approximately 70 to 90 centimetres.

The species of snake your friend encountered depends on which part of South-east Asia he was in. I'm assuming that he was in Thailand since you mentioned that there was a large number of Thais in his group. Two giant snakes are known from that region, the Burmese python and reticulated python, and both can get to more than 8 metres.

If I'm not wrong, the Burmese is on average shorter in length, but wider in girth than the reticulated.

It's also possible that the python had recently swallowed a large victim, possibly a pig, goat or deer, hence explaining the wide girth.

The idea of using a snake as a bridge while under fire reminded me of this bit in Greg Laden's Congo Memoirs:

"When you see the rhino charging," the ranger, a short and wide wizened woman of about 35 intoned "You will be in the tree. You won't know how you got there and you won't mind the thorns."

With sufficient incentive and urgency, it's probably possible to tight-rope a Boiga. Maybe even a Typhlops. And as a frequent respondent to 'snake-calls' (at least daily, lately) I know that size-estimates by untrained and excited observers are inflated by a factor of, approximately, the square root of their height in feet.

By John Scanlon FCD (not verified) on 17 Feb 2009 #permalink

Hai~Ren
Thank you, "python had recently swallowed a large victim" that makes sense. "Burmese python and reticulated python" gives me something I can look up and find a picture of. I really don't know the location as it was classified but I would think you are right, probably near the Laos border.
I was in Chu Lai (Viet Nam) at the time and he was coming my way.

Wasn't there a giant snake in Madagascar 70-65 million years ago?

I think it was called Madstoia

By Eric Dolha (not verified) on 05 May 2009 #permalink