So big in fact that not one, not two, not even three, but four, five, six press releases on EurekaAlert! were required just to get the word out about its discovery. That’s a lot of snake. The multi-institution team discovered the 60-million-year-old fossilised remains of Titanoboa cerrejonensis in Cerrejón, a coal mine in north Colombia – hence the name, which means “titanic boa from Cerrejon”.
By comparing the size of the fossilized vertebrae with those of snakes alive today, the scientists determined that the monster was more than 13 metres long, weighed over one and a quarter tons, and at its widest point would reach the hips of a human. It preyed on giant turtles and crocodiles, the preserved skeletons of which were also found.
Size isn’t everything, however. Not content with the discovery of such a large snake, paleontologist Jason Head of the University of Toronto-Mississauga used the fossils to estimate the climate that the beast would live in, publishing the results as lead author of a paper for the journal Nature.
Snakes are cold-blooded, meaning that they must absorb heat from their surroundings. Based on the size of Titanoboa, Head estimated that it would requite an average annual temperature of 30 to 34 °C in order to survive. This is about six degrees hotter than current temperatures in the region. Florida Museum of Natural History vertebrate paleontologist Jonathan Bloch, one of the discoverers of the fossils, explains:
“Tropical ecosystems of South America were surprisingly different 60 million years ago,
“It was a rainforest, like today, but it was even hotter and the cold-blooded reptiles were all substantially larger. The result was, among other things, the largest snakes the world has ever seen… and hopefully ever will.”