“Snakes,” swashbuckling archeologist Indiana Jones famously groans in Raiders of the Lost Ark. “Why’d it have to be snakes?”
If, like Indy, the mere thought of a serpent makes you shiver, you’re not alone — a fear of snakes is among the most common phobias, even for people who have never seen one in person. In fact, humans may have evolved to be born with an innate fear of snakes and spiders, according to a study published in Frontiers in Psychology in 2017.
But even if you could sidestep a garter snake without batting an eye, you might feel differently if you found yourself face-to-face with the Titanoboa cerrejonensis. Read on to learn more about this menacing creature and other giant prehistoric snakes.
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Spanning well over 40 feet from tip to tail, this colossal serpent — longer than a school bus and nearly as heavy as a shipping container — is thought to be a distant relative of boa constrictors and anacondas. Slithering through the swampy jungle that once stretched across present-day Colombia, Titanoboa was a fearsome predator.
It didn’t strike with sharp fangs or deadly venom, but instead squeezed the life out of its prey, essentially crushing them to death. Thankfully, its heyday was roughly 60 million years ago, just a few million years after the final days of the dinosaurs.
Titanoboa wasn’t the only primeval serpent that once wriggled its way across the planet. While fossil records for these often-fragile creatures remain incomplete, scientists have learned much about them in recent decades. Here’s more on Titanoboa and two prehistoric snakes that, fortunately, you’ll never have to meet.
1. The Largest Snake Ever — Titanoboa cerrejonensis
A life-size replica of Titanoboa on display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. The snake’s sheer size suggests it had no trouble devouring animals as large as alligators. (Credit: James DiLoreto/Smithsonian)
The biggest snake that ever slithered was T. cerrejonensis. Scientists first uncovered fossils from Titanoboa in 2009 when they found fossilized vertebrae and ribs belonging to 28 individual snakes in an open-pit coal mine in northern Colombia.
It was the structure of the vertebrae that led the team to believe it was related to the boa constrictor, prompting them to dub the species T. cerrejonesis, or “titanic boa from Cerrejón” for the coal mine in which it was found. Meanwhile, the size of the vertebrae suggested that the prehistoric monster weighed a whopping 2,500 pounds and measured 42 feet in length, according to the team’s analysis in Nature.
The researchers also explored what the snake’s environment might have looked like. They calculated that a snake of Titanoboa’s stature would have needed an average annual temperature of 86 to 93 degrees Fahrenheit to support its metabolism. This suggests that as temperatures increase, so does the size limit that cold-blooded creatures are capable of reaching.
2. The Largest Sea Snake — Palaeophis colossaeus
Fossilized vertebrae belonging to Palaeophis colossaeus. (Credit: Ghedo/Wikimedia Commons)
Palaeophis colossaeus is the largest sea snake to ever have existed. This aquatic snake once glided through the waters of the ancient Trans-Saharan Seaway, a shallow saltwater region that filled Africa’s Sahara Desert around 50 to 100 million years ago. Estimated to span more than 30 feet, fossil records indicate that Palaeophis colossaeus, the largest sea snakes to ever live, swam alongside colossal catfish, spiny, mollusk-crushing fishes and gigantic, long-snouted crocodilians. Due to its sheer size, it could have fed on smaller species of whales with ease.
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P. colossaeus — as well as other giant aquatic serpents that belonged to the Palaeophis (“ancient snake”) genus — remains poorly understood by scientists, as only a few fossils have been found in the now-landlocked country of Mali.
But researchers continue to unravel the enigmatic sea snake’s mysteries. In an analysis published in the Swiss Journal of Paleontology in 2021, scientists used micro CT-scanning techniques to create 3D models of the snake’s vertebrae, which showed it was more robust and massive than other aquatic snakes of the era.
3. The Former Reigning Champ — Gigantophis garstini
This diagram shows the estimated lengths of Gigantophis garstini compared to other large snakes like Titanoboa. (Credit: Gamma 124/Wikimedia Commons)
Since its discovery in Algeria over a hundred years ago, Gigantophis garstini was known as the largest snake to have ever lived — until Titanoboa snatched that title in 2009. Still, at more than 33 feet long and weighing around half a ton, this python-like predator was no slouch when it came to consuming its prey.
As this prehistoric snake slithered through the woodlands of northern Africa and southern Asia during the Eocene Epoch (roughly 40 to 35 million years ago), paleontologists think that it may have stalked mammalian megafauna like the Moeritherium, pig-like creatures that would evolve into today’s elephants.
For more than a century, G. garstini was the only known species of its now-extinct genus, Gigantophis, or “giant snake” in ancient Greek. But that all changed in 2014, when researchers found a second (incomplete) fossil specimen, distinct from Gigantophis garstini, in Pakistan, suggesting that other species of titanic snakes are still out there, waiting to be found.
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