Remember the movie Anaconda that came out in the 90s? It instilled a new level of ophidiophobia (snake fear) in some while leaving others chomping at the bit. The thought of an aquatic, 25 ft snake slithering through the Amazon sounds almost too nightmarish to be real.
But what if we told you that anacondas diminish in the shadows of their monstrous ancestor, the Titanoboa?
It’s true — the extinct snake that ruled La Guajira, Columbia during the Paleocene epoch grew up to 50 ft long. It wasn’t until 2009 that the creature’s remains were first discovered and analyzed.
Not even Samuel L. Jackson could save a plane full of these beasts.
Brain Food: Titanoboa Facts at a Glance
Titanoboas were the largest snake from the Paleocene epoch, reaching up to 50 feet in length and 2,500 lbs in weight.
Scientists used the snake’s size to approximate the temperature of its habitat. They determined that the snake would have needed annual average temps between 86-93 degrees Fahrenheit to support its size.
They were piscivores — meaning, their diet comprised mainly of fish.
In 2012, the Smithsonian in Grand Central Station set up a mockup to give viewers a visual representation of just how ginormous Titanoboas could get. Hanging from its mouth appeared to be a crocodile’s tail.
Scientists made the historical discovery of several Titanoboa remains in the Cerrejón Formation of the coal mines of Cerrejón (Colombia). Before this finding, very few vertebrae fossils from this region and period had been uncovered. The discovery gave clues about the climate — supporting such a snake would require higher temps than what are seen in the South American tropics today.
What’s usually the case with ectothermic animals (species with an internal temp that’s the same as their environment), the closer to the equator the animal lives, the larger it is.
The snake’s internal temp and metabolism would have relied heavily on the temps in its habitat. And with the hotter temps of this period, it’s hypothesized that the Titanoboa’s gigantism was an adaptation to its environment.
With that much length came a lot of weight. Titanoboas probably weighed a hefty 2,500 lbs on average. Within their robust body were over 250 vertebrae, along with an uber-flexible jaw and recurved teeth (curved backward).
The design of the Titanoboa’s teeth worked much like the majority of its snake relatives. The inward curvature locked in the prey as the snake directed it backward, inch by inch until it was swallowed whole.
While Titanoboas are related to both anacondas and boas, it’s uncertain which of these modern-day snakes it’s closest to. However, one thing is for certain — the flexible jaw and recurved teeth are commonly seen amongst constrictors. Meaning, the Titanoboa most likely killed its prey by asphyxiation.
Certain adaptations found in Titanoboa fossils resemble those seen in today’s fish-eating snakes. For instance, the shape of its palate and teeth — plus the sheer amount of teeth. So it’s likely that Titanoboa also preyed on fish.
With a mostly pescatarian diet, lungfish was a likely staple in the snake’s diet. It’s possible that Titanoboas also ate other snakes, crocodiles, turtles, birds, and mammals that were unlucky enough to cross their path. After all, snakes are usually considered “generalists” when it comes to their diet.
The Titanoboa’s habitat, La Guajira, is a region in what is now Northeastern Columbia. During the Paleocene age, this coastal area was rich in tropical rainforests and large river systems.
You can look to the Mississippi River delta swamps or Florida’s everglades for a modern-day comparison to the ancient environment. The main difference being the temperature — La Guajira was much warmer, due to its positioning in the tropics.
Considering the landscape, it’s likely that Titanoboa’s spent the majority of their time in the water, much like anacondas. They would have lived amongst several other freshwater reptiles and creatures. Still, the area didn’t host much biodiversity, relatively speaking.
Titanoboa’s were on Earth between about 66 million to 56 million years ago, during the Paleocene Epoch. It wasn’t too long after the dinosaurs perished that the Titanoboa also came and went.
As with almost all extinctions from this period, this was a result of climate change. While the temperatures of these ecosystems continued to drop, so did the size of their snake inhabitants.
Today, we will just have to make due with Titanoboa’s “meager” cousin — the anaconda.