IMAGINE A SNAKE so wide it would barely fit through a doorway and so tall it would reach an adult’s waistline. That is how researchers describe the 2,500 pound, 45-foot long Titanoboa cerrejonensis—the biggest snake the world has ever known—who ruled the tropics 65 million years ago. “This was the largest predator on the planet for at least 10 or 20 million years,” says Jonathan Bloch Associate Curator of Vertebrate Paleontology at the University of Florida’s Museum of Natural History. The massive anaconda-like snake lived 6 million years after the dinosaurs went extinct.
During a series of excavations at the Cerrejón coal mine in northern Colombia, an international team of scientists—led by Jonathan Bloch and Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute Staff Scientist Carlos Jaramillo—collected the remains of Titanoboa along with fossils of the giant-sized relatives of modern-day crocodiles and side-necked turtles. According to Bloch, these excavations have yielded the first fossil vertebrates ever found in tropical South America from the Paleocene Epoch 65 to 55 million years ago. “Now we have a window into the time just after the dinosaurs went extinct and can actually see what the animals replacing them were like,” he explains.
Cerrejón, the world’s largest open-pit coalmine, provides an unprecedented opportunity for paleontological research. “The tropics are a horrible place to find fossils because they are completely overgrown,” Bloch explains. To collect fossils, researchers need dry areas with exposed rock—requirements nearly impossible to satisfy in a region covered by dense jungles. Scientists are especially interested in obtaining information about the first 10 million years following the demise of the dinosaurs. “In the tropics we know nothing about that 10 million years,” says Bloch. The opening in the jungle created by the coal mine has created a window into that time period and the creatures that lived then.
Bloch suggests that Titanoboa was similar to modern day green anacondas, giant-sized boas that live in the swamps and rivers of the Amazon and Orionoco basins in South America. At 30 feet and 550 pounds, the green anaconda is the largest species of snake alive today. Without venom, these snakes incapacitate their prey by squeezing them to death and then swallowing them hole. Their strength and size enables them to take down formidable prey including wild pigs, capybara and jaguars. Researchers speculate that Titanoboa sustained a similar diet and may have fed on the giant turtles and crocodiles whose skeletons were also found in Cerrejón.
Titanoboa’s size gives clues to what the climate was like millions of years ago. “We’re looking at a land of giants here where it was much wetter and much warmer than today,” Bloch says. Because snakes and other cold-blooded animals rely on ambient temperature for their growth and survival, warmer temperatures result in larger snakes. A sampling of modern-day snakes shows that the largest snakes live in the warmest equatorial regions of the world. Based on the snake’s size Bloch and his team calculated that the mean annual temperature to support a snake that large would have to be about 91 degrees Fahrenheit—about 10 degrees warmer than today’s average temperature.
For Bloch and other researchers, Titanoboa and its giant companions provide a glimpse into a time period that has puzzled the scientific world. They can begin to answer questions about what happened in the tropics once the dinosaurs went extinct and what predators took their place. “We’re seeing the very beginning of the modern Amazonian rainforest that diversified and evolved into an incredible hot spot of bio diversity once the dinos went extinct.” Bloch says. “We’re seeing things we have never seen before.”