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Titanoboa: The Biggest Snake That Ever Lived

The Giant Snake

A life size reconstruction of Titanoboa.

A life size reconstruction of Titanoboa.

Earth in the Paleocene

The position of the continents during the Palaeocene, some 60 million years ago.

The position of the continents during the Palaeocene, some 60 million years ago.

A Contender for Top Predator

Diatryma- a vicious terror bird that became one of Earth's top predators immediately after the extinction of the dinosaurs.

Diatryma- a vicious terror bird that became one of Earth's top predators immediately after the extinction of the dinosaurs.

Travel Back in Time

Sixty five million years ago, the giant dinosaurs, those icons of prehistory now permanently entrenched in popular culture, vanished from the face of the Earth. But they did leave behind a vicious legacy, a distant reptilian cousin of monstrous proportions that make its modern relatives seem like mere worms. In order, to learn more about this creature, we have to travel through the vastness of deep time, back to an era known as the Palaeocene, roughly 58 million years ago.

At this time, the catastrophic asteroid impact that eliminated the dinosaurs and many other large animals was already a distant memory. Earth had long since recovered; the climate had stabilised, and had returned to largely what it had been prior to the extinction event, hot and humid. The so called greenhouse effect that wrapped the Earth in a warm, cosy carbon blanket allowed tropical forests to spread right across the world, even the poles were green and lush at this point.

A fierce battle now commenced for supremacy over the land among the remaining large animals. One of the competitors was actually one of the dinosaurs that had managed to survive. Although, if we were to glimpse this monster, we would refer to it as a bird (most scientists today recognise that birds are in fact feathered dinosaurs- based on anatomical similarities and DNA). It stood roughly ten feet tall, was covered in feathers, had a huge, razor sharp beak, and more worryingly for our tiny mammalian ancestors, had an insatiable taste for meat.

Another competitor for supremacy was a gigantic snake, in fact the word gigantic is really rather an understatement. Imagine walking through a hot, humid steamy South American jungle, all of a sudden the vegetation rustles violently. Very soon, you come face to face with a snake weighing more than a tonne, and measuring 50 feet in length. This snake was so large that it could swallow an entire crocodile whole without showing a bulge, so a human being would represent a mere light snack. To give you an idea of just how large this monster was, the biggest snake alive today; the giant anaconda is just half the size.

A Giant Today...A Worm Compared to its Ancestor

The Giant Anaconda is the largest snake alive today, growing up to 28 feet long, and is easily capable of swallowing a deer.

The Giant Anaconda is the largest snake alive today, growing up to 28 feet long, and is easily capable of swallowing a deer.

Imagine if Indiana Jones Ever Met This Monster

Comparing Titanoboa with History's Deadliest Predators

Giants of the Past

The snake is thought to be a distant relative of both the anaconda and boa constrictor. Scientists have aptly christened it Titanoboa. Like its relatives, it did not bite, nor was it venomous. Instead, it was a constrictor, except that the forces involved were truly mind boggling. Titanoboa was able to crush its prêt with the constricting force of 400Ibs per square inch; this is equivalent of lying under the weight of one and a half Brooklyn Bridges.

Titanoboa was actually first exposed by an excavation at the Cerrejon open coal mine in Colombia in 2002. It quickly became clear to the scientists that they had stumbled across a lost world, a 58 million year old forest. As you would expect, the site was littered with fossilised leaves and plants, but they also found plenty of animal fossils. The most impressive of these by far, were the reptiles; some were so big that they literally defied even the most fertile imaginations.

The Palaeocene was an age of huge turtles, bigger than your average kitchen table and was also home to the biggest crocodiles ever known. But Titanoboa was the most exciting find of all. Initially they only found the vertebrae, but the sheer size of it offered vital clues to the enormous scale of the animal.

Indeed, this snake reigned supreme as the top predator on Earth for ten million years, effectively seizing supremacy from the dinosaurs. Its glorious reign unfortunately came to an end, probably through global cooling, and increased competition from other reptiles and also a new batch of recently evolved mammalian predators. At this time, the mammals underwent a tremendous radiation, evolving into a variety of different forms. In fact, this was the time when many modern mammal families first appeared, including our own, the primates.

While the scientists were conscious of Titanoboa’s enormity, they needed to uncover a skull in order to get a fuller picture. So, off they went back to South America to find the elusive missing piece. Expectations though, weren’t particularly high, as snake skulls normally do not preserve very well. The reason is that, unlike our own, snake skulls are connected with tissue, rather than fused together like ours, this explains why they can open their jaws extremely wide. If an animal with a fused skull like ours attempted such a thing, then the result would be a broken jaw. Due to their extraordinary skull design, when a snake normally dies, all of the connective tissue decomposes, as do all of the individual bones, but Titanoboa’s enormous proportions mean that it’s one of the few members of its family to actually make it into the fossil record.

Not only did the scientists find a skull, they actually found three, enabling them to accurately reconstruct the giant for the first time. They also learnt, that just like modern snakes, the females were much larger than the male, and were also able to gain valuable insights into Earth’s climate at the time, and perhaps give us a tantalising glimpse into the possible side effects of our present global warming episode. How did they do this? Well, snakes being reptiles are unable to regulate their own body temperature and have to rely on external heat sources to survive. The scientists theorise that Titanoboa managed to attain its enormous size because it was much warmer in the equatorial regions 60 million years ago, it may also explain the evolution of giant turtles and crocodiles.

This ability to thrive in warmer climates could be of great relevance to our present situation, and serve as proof that life is more resilient than we think. It could well be, that reptiles prove to be the ultimate winners in a world artificially warmed by the activities of humanity.

Could the Giant Snakes Ever Return?

Of course, the chances of Titanoboa itself returning are nil, but could one of its modern relatives ever stride down the same evolutionary path? Admittedly scientists are less certain about the effects of sudden temperature change, such as the one that’s occurred over the last century and a half. One thing that is known though, is that life is amazingly adaptable. Often wholesale changes, both in climate and the environment can fuel the fires of evolution.

In Titanoboa’s time, the levels of CO2 present in the atmosphere were 50% higher than today. It sounds extraordinary to us that life can even survive at such extremes. But it really does seem that tropical plants and the entire tropical ecosystem have an uncanny ability to cope with high temperatures, and high levels of carbon as well. If current trends prove to be accurate, then there is a very good chance that a snake like the giant anaconda could take the same evolutionary path as Titanoboa, but of course such monumental changes would take millions of years, but the fact that it is within the realms of possibility, make it thoroughly intriguing.

Comments

James Kenny (author) from Birmingham, England on August 12, 2018:

Oh don't get me started on the puppet theatre that is Westminster- makes me ashamed to be human. Anyway nice to see you again Alan and thank you for stopping by.

Alan R Lancaster from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) on August 12, 2018:

And I thought the biggest snakes had already arrived.... at Westminster. A pit of giant vipers if ever there was one, James.

Pardon the levity, this is a thought-provoking piece you've put to us. Must get back to reading through some of your others about the what- has-been-and-we-hope-never-comes-back. Imagine the world as we know it being taken back in time by the re-emergence of these monsters? They'd make a mess of modern life, and no mistake. They'd make 'Spaghetti Junction' look like a country road...

James Kenny (author) from Birmingham, England on August 17, 2014:

No problem Anna, and thank you for taking the time to read and comment on one of my mine. Glad you liked it :).

Anna from chichester on August 17, 2014:

400lbs per square inch?! That's astonishing! I usually skim web pages and articles but I read every word of this. Fascinating stuff - to have evolved to have that body mass and strength kind of tells us a lot about the size/weight of other dinosaurs/prehistoric animals that roamed the earth back then. Awesome article :) and thanks for your kind comment on my Sumatran tigers hub too :)

Ashutosh Tiwari from Lucknow, India on April 07, 2014:

@JKenny

Thanks for sharing such a wonderful Hub.

I believe Amazon Snakes to be synonymous with monsters. At least the one you have described.

Wishes

James Kenny (author) from Birmingham, England on February 15, 2014:

Indeed!

sam oliver on February 15, 2014:

fattest flipping snake man

James Kenny (author) from Birmingham, England on May 23, 2013:

Thanks you very much Nico. Glad you enjoyed it! Nice to meet a fellow paleontology geek!

Shhhhhh! from Rocky Mountain Region on May 23, 2013:

Amazing indeed! A lively read for a paleontology geek like me. Good work!

James Kenny (author) from Birmingham, England on April 17, 2013:

Thank you very much! Really glad you liked it.

Jmillis2006 from North Carolina on April 17, 2013:

I had never heard of this prehistoric snake before, I found this hub very interesting you did a great job.

samowhamo on April 10, 2013:

Well Megalania is a giant Komodo Dragon so its venom would probably be more toxic then an average Komodo Dragon but then again would its teeth be able to penetrate the Boa's scales or are they to thick.

James Kenny (author) from Birmingham, England on April 10, 2013:

Well, it's hard to say because even though Titanoboa has the size advantage, Megalania has a venomous bite, so, for me it'd be too close to call. What do you think?

samowhamo on April 10, 2013:

I wonder which one would win if they fought each other titanoboa or megalania.

James Kenny (author) from Birmingham, England on January 09, 2013:

Thanks sg, there's a part of me that would love to go back, and a part of me that would be too afraid of altering history. But it doesn't hurt to dream I suppose.

Sheila Brown from Southern Oklahoma on January 09, 2013:

I love your hubs like this! It makes me try to imagine what life would have been like 50-60 million years ago. Can you imagine coming across a snake like this! Holy Moly!!! Maybe some day we will have a time machine and we can really go back and see what life was like. Voted this up and awesome! :)

James Kenny (author) from Birmingham, England on December 02, 2012:

Thanks Teresa, that's what I love about nature, its so utterly unpredictable. Even when things seem impossibly hard, life always finds a solution

Teresa Coppens from Ontario, Canada on December 02, 2012:

Another great prehistory hub. I love reading about creatures of the past. With creatures such as Titanoboa around it is a wonder us poor mammals even had a chance! But life, as you said, finds a way. Very interesting hub James. Well done as always.

James Kenny (author) from Birmingham, England on November 24, 2012:

Thanks Adama, well there's being scared of snakes, but I think everybody would be scared of Titanoboa if it were still alive. Thanks for popping by.

Adama Gidado on November 24, 2012:

Great hub. I'm very scared of snakes too but they are very interesting animals nonetheless. I'm relieved to learn that the Titanoboa no longer exists because the adventures of life might have been a little different.

samowhamo on November 09, 2012:

Hi JKenny I don't know if you would be interested in this or not but I just posted an article about five different species of prehistoric sharks. And also is it alright if I just call you Kenny for short.

James Kenny (author) from Birmingham, England on November 09, 2012:

I'm pretty sure that this creature doesn't exist. Apparently it was only able to grow so big because of the levels of CO2 in the atmosphere. So one day, if CO2 levels rise significantly, one of our modern snakes may evolve into a giant.

Emma from Houston TX on November 09, 2012:

Wow! this is fascinating. Can this creature still be existing? I'm afraid, existence of this big creature could even wipe a large population.

James Kenny (author) from Birmingham, England on November 05, 2012:

Thanks JP, no it certainly would be a scary era to live in. But I wouldn't mind visiting it just to get a glimpse of the giant.

JP Carlos from Quezon CIty, Phlippines on November 05, 2012:

What a great read. I would not want to live in a time where such giants roamed the earth.

James Kenny (author) from Birmingham, England on October 20, 2012:

Thank you Highland Terrier, appreciate the feedback immensely. Thanks for popping by.

Highland Terrier from Dublin, Ireland on October 20, 2012:

Thank you for an amazing amount of information.

And very very interesting, and extremely easy to read as well.

Brilliant.

James Kenny (author) from Birmingham, England on September 06, 2012:

Thank you dwachira, I love whenever someone learns something from one of my hubs, makes it all worth while. Thanks for popping by.

James Kenny (author) from Birmingham, England on August 27, 2012:

Thanks vibesites, glad you liked it. Titanoboa has to be the among the most spectacular animals to have ever lived.

vibesites from United States on August 27, 2012:

I'm afraid of snakes but this hub didn't prevent me from catching my attention. What an unbelievable reptile... very interesting hub! :)

James Kenny (author) from Birmingham, England on August 21, 2012:

Thanks internpete- I don't mind snakes personally, but no I probably wouldn't want to hang around this giant for too long either. Thanks for popping by.

Peter V from At the Beach in Florida on August 21, 2012:

Fascinating hub. I am not a big fan of snakes at their current size, so I would never want to run into this giant snake!

James Kenny (author) from Birmingham, England on July 20, 2012:

Thanks Shirogetsu, glad you liked it. Don't worry about the spelling, one of my best friends at school was dyslexic, so I do have some understanding of the problem, and can totally sympathise with you. Thanks again for taking the time to read and comment.

Shirogetsu on July 19, 2012:

I forgot to put that I am a terrible speller. I have Dyslexia, I had a program that taught me how to read, amazing at it now. It couldn't really help me with the spelling part though, so if there is any mis-spelling in my comment than it is because of that annoying problem.

Shirogetsu on July 19, 2012:

Oh, my gosh! And this is why I am scared all of the time! My grandmother keeps telling me that if I keep staying afraid of everything that I can never live or be happy. Ih, maybe I should stop reading Non fictional stuff.... To bad I'm to knowledge hunger can't find any interest in a fictional book anymore, wish I hadn't got the IQ thing from her family. Why can't I be like my Mother and sister, not wanting to read everything and anything, remembering every scary bad statistic!

Sorry for the rant, found the article very interesting and well written. I love anything to do with animals, I really love the prehistoric type. I find them fasinating!

James Kenny (author) from Birmingham, England on May 21, 2012:

I'm not normally afraid of snakes, but if I ever encountered Titanoboa. I'd run for the hills. Thanks for popping by Kalux.

Kalux from Canada on May 21, 2012:

Wow! I am terrified of snakes but just had to see. *shivers*

James Kenny (author) from Birmingham, England on May 20, 2012:

Don't worry snigdha, if they do ever return, then it will be far into the future, probably long after our extinction. Thanks for popping by.

Snigdha Shahi from India,mumbai on May 20, 2012:

The strange thing about snakes is they are beautiful creatures but scary at the same time. Am glad to be born after titanoboa disappeared from this planet and I don't look forward to them returning. Interesting Hub.

James Kenny (author) from Birmingham, England on May 16, 2012:

Cheers Wesman, if I can find enough info, then I'll definitely write more hubs concerning this genre.

Wesman Todd Shaw from Kaufman, Texas on May 16, 2012:

Well you know you had me from the title!!!! Great job!! Can I request more from this genre?

James Kenny (author) from Birmingham, England on May 16, 2012:

Thanks silverstararrow, it is very difficult to imagine isn't it. What's even scarier is that such a giant could one day evolve again with the way the climate is going.

Arati Nair from Scottsdale on May 16, 2012:

This is such an interesting and informative hub. And, terrifying to even imagine a snake of such gigantic size. The videos too are awesome.

Voted up and interesting. Keep up the good work! :)

Danson Wachira from Nairobi, Kenya on May 12, 2012:

I didn't know that fact about snake skull being connected to their tissue. This is an interesting hub to read and well written too. Thanks.

James Kenny (author) from Birmingham, England on May 09, 2012:

Thanks theclevercat, it is truly amazing when you consider that normally snake skulls do not fossilise that well. Titanoboa has instantly become my favourite prehistoric animal.

Rachel Vega from Massachusetts on May 09, 2012:

Terrific hub. Just the thought of these gigantic creatures makes my skin crawl! It's amazing to think they found three of the snake skulls. Voted up and interesting.

James Kenny (author) from Birmingham, England on May 07, 2012:

Yeah, I saw that on the BBC, it's a pretty weird theory isn't it. I always preferred the old meteor slamming into the Earth theory myself, sounds more dramatic. Thanks for popping by, Angie.

Angie Jardine from Cornwall, land of the eternally youthful mind ... on May 07, 2012:

Great hub, JK ... blimey, but that was one big snake.

On the news this morning I heard someone had posited that the dinosaurs died out because of global warming due to the amount of methane that they ... er ... passed. It was estimated it was more the we now produce from all modern day sources of green house gases put together.

That's a lot of breaking wind ...

James Kenny (author) from Birmingham, England on May 07, 2012:

Thanks Angela, it may have lived alongside the dinosaurs, but from the sources I checked out, it seems that it lived just after the dinosaurs became extinct. Like you, I'm totally fascinated by this era in time, as it gets less coverage than the age of the dinosaurs.

Angela Michelle Schultz from United States on May 06, 2012:

Hokey Pete that snake is huge! It sounds like the titanboa lived either right after the dinosaurs became extinct, or may have lived while they were still alive. I find everything about this time period utterly fascinating!

James Kenny (author) from Birmingham, England on May 05, 2012:

Thanks very much rahul. I think its wonderful how creatures like these can both terrify and fascinate us at the same. I really appreciate your kind words. Thanks for the follow and the share.

Jessee R from Gurgaon, India on May 05, 2012:

Great info kenny! I was and am really intrigued by the facts, fossils offer about the lost civilizations! The pre-historic age of History is the most difficult to recreate but efforts of skilled excavators have made it possible for us to have information like this and

You Sir! have used the net and your creative, prolific writing style... coupled with awesome videos and pics to create a mesmerizing and some times horrific picture in our minds

Great hub

Sharing all over :)

James Kenny (author) from Birmingham, England on May 05, 2012:

Thanks Christopher. I used to dream of time travel to the past, but I'd be more concerned of doing something that would radically alter history. Thanks for popping by, always appreciated.

James Kenny (author) from Birmingham, England on May 05, 2012:

Hi Jools, it can be difficult to imagine such colossal animals, mostly because we've never seen anything like them in our time. I always thought of Nessie as more of a pleisosaur, rather than a sea serpent. It'd be pretty cool if Nessie was ever proven to be real.

James Kenny (author) from Birmingham, England on May 05, 2012:

The best quote I heard about extinct species is 'that they weren't failures, they were successful, but a little less often.' When you think about it, in terms of time on the earth, we're not even the most successful human. Homo erectus first appeared 2 million years ago, and only died out 30,000 years ago. So we've got a long way to go to beat that.

Christopher Antony Meade from Gillingham Kent. United Kingdom on May 05, 2012:

I used to wish I had a time machine but, when I consider the creatures I might meet in the past, I think I would be better off without one.

Thanks for that fascinating article James.

Jools Hogg from North-East UK on May 05, 2012:

Great hub JK, it's difficult to imagine what we'd make of a a Titanoboa if we saw one now. I imagine it's what the Loch Ness Monster probably looks like?

AnimalWrites from Planet Earth on May 05, 2012:

Interesting hub on the Titanoboa JKenny, and although I like snakes, I wouldn't want to meet this one! I always find it amusing when people talk about extinct species as failures when they thrived for millions of years. We have only been around for a fraction of that time, so lets see if the human race can stop destroying itself before we get too cocky

James Kenny (author) from Birmingham, England on May 05, 2012:

Update:

Thanks to Alastar and Curiad for pointing out that the Titanoboa vs. T-Rex video doesn't work in the US. I've now replaced it with another. Let me know if it works across the pond. Thanks.

James Kenny (author) from Birmingham, England on May 05, 2012:

Thanks very much Claire, yes you can understand why such monsters lived so long ago. Had they survived, I doubt whether man would have been able to evolve in the first place. Thanks for popping by.

James Kenny (author) from Birmingham, England on May 05, 2012:

Ah! You watched it too. A few of my mates on Facebook, watched it as well. It was probably the most interesting documentary I've seen for a while. Thanks for popping by, Nell.

James Kenny (author) from Birmingham, England on May 05, 2012:

Thanks bdegiulio, it is truly amazing isn't it? It certainly boggles the mind, it looks like something out of the Lord of the Rings or something.

James Kenny (author) from Birmingham, England on May 05, 2012:

Thanks Lisa Marie, very glad you liked it. I'm also grateful for the share on Facebook, thanks very much.

James Kenny (author) from Birmingham, England on May 05, 2012:

Oh really! That's weird, it plays okay in Britain. Thanks for telling me, curiad. I'll get rid of it.

James Kenny (author) from Birmingham, England on May 05, 2012:

Thanks for popping by John. Yes I must admit I was shocked too, when I first learned of this monster. Just glad that I'll never meet one.

Claire on May 04, 2012:

Very interesting and informative, enjoyed this hub. I really snakes, but this one....scary,and makes you understand why dinosaurs and the like evolved long before man. Time and again I see that we were not supposed to be on the planet at the same time as these monsters.

Nell Rose from England on May 04, 2012:

This was fascinating and a great read after watching it the other night. In fact you beat me too it!I was going to tackle it, and realised that I hadn't listened properly! I couldn't believe it when I saw it on tv, and you have filled in the facts nicely as I was so busy staring at the snake I forgot to listen to the information! lol! rated up! cheers nell

Bill De Giulio from Massachusetts on May 04, 2012:

Very interesting JKenny. Really enjoyed this article. Quite amazing to think that a snake of this size roamed the earth at one time. Well done.

Lisa Stover from Pittsburgh PA on May 04, 2012:

Wow, one of the most interesting hubs I've read in a long time :)

Curiad on May 04, 2012:

Awesome article JKenny, The only thing is the second video is blocked in the USA,

Very Interesting.

John Sarkis from Winter Haven, FL on May 04, 2012:

Great hub JKenny; thanks for sharing the hub bargergirl!

This is really cool. I'm aware of the anaconda being the world's largest snake, but I had no idea that snakes this large ever existed before reading your hub.

Enjoyed the read very much and voted up

John

James Kenny (author) from Birmingham, England on May 04, 2012:

Jesus! You have rattlesnakes in your garden! To be honest I'd probably be freaking out as well, the thought of getting bitten...

Stacy Harris from Hemet, Ca on May 04, 2012:

I think right now I am particularly freaked out by snakes... my in laws just captured a rattlesnake in their yard that attacked their dog... Now I am all freaked out. Not that I need ammo or anything! LOL ;)

James Kenny (author) from Birmingham, England on May 04, 2012:

Thanks barbergirl28, I know what you mean. We only have one venomous snake in Britain, the adder and its only a tiddler. If you get bitten by one, it'll just give you an irritating rash. Thanks for popping by.

James Kenny (author) from Birmingham, England on May 04, 2012:

Thanks molometer, really glad you liked it. Thank you for popping by and for the vote.

James Kenny (author) from Birmingham, England on May 04, 2012:

RTalloni,

I must admit that I have a fascination with cryptozoology, and it would be awesome, and also terrifying to find that they still exist somewhere. That's the great thing about nature, nothing is totally certain.

Stacy Harris from Hemet, Ca on May 04, 2012:

Ummmm.... I am still shaking... I don't like snakes and if I would have come across that I am sure I would have died of fear instantly before becoming a light snack... interesting article. I am glad I don't find those kind of snakes in my backyard!

James Kenny (author) from Birmingham, England on May 04, 2012:

Thanks Alaster, it truly was a nightmarish creature. To be honest, I'm very glad that humans weren't around at that time. The anacondas and constrictors are bad enough as they are. Thanks for popping by, my friend. Always appreciated.

Micheal from United Kingdom on May 04, 2012:

What an incredible creature and an interesting read. Voted up and interesting.

RTalloni on May 04, 2012:

Interesting to take a look at this snake. He's amazing! What if they're not really gone? Mt. St. Helens and other volcanoes fossilized quite a lot of living things in a very short time, so to go there and find a fossil wouldn't mean that the species is gone.

Alastar Packer from North Carolina on May 04, 2012:

Yes that terror bird was bad bad news for any meal it took a fancy to but holy moloney the Titanoboa is unbelievable and a true man-eating snake, assuming man had been around then. Meaty article JK- the vids top it off just right except for the last one which is blocked..

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