58-million Years Ago, A Giant Predator Roamed the Amazon
New Fossil Discovery Leads Scientists on the Trail of an Ancient Snake
by Amira Caire, age 14
Fifty-eight million years ago, a 50-foot creature, weighing a little over a ton, roamed the lowland tropics of Cerrejón, Colombia. This vicious, cold-blooded predator is thought to be the Titanoboa cerrejones snake. The discovery of its existence leaves scientists astounded, and causes them to reconsider the nature of archaic life.
The land underneath Cerrejón is said to be one of the world’s richest, most valuable fossil deposits. These fossil deposits give scientists an exclusive look at a geological period when the dinosaurs had vanished and a new environment with different species was emerging.
Colombia holds about ten percent of the Amazon rainforest. This tropical region was once the home of Titanoboa snakes. The massive reptile resembled a modern day boa constrictor, but behaved more like today’s water-dwelling anaconda. Boas can grow up to 14 feet long and weigh as much as 100 pounds, while anacondas can reach beyond 22 feet and weigh more than 500 pounds.
The bones of Titanoboa indicate that it was closely related to the boa, but Cerrejón’s surroundings offered an environment similar to the habitat of a modern South American anaconda. Although anacondas are big, Titanoboa was much bigger. This ancient snake was a swamp resident and a ruthless predator, eating any animal that caught its eye.
Paleontologists Jonathan Bloch, of the University of Florida and Jason Head, of the University of Nebraska, are shocked at how humongous the Titanoboa was. The scientists spent much of last year looking over its remains. Jorge Moreno-Bernal, a Smithsonian Institution intern, found the unusual fossils a few weeks earlier.
Bloch and Head had thought of Titanoboa as more boa than anaconda. The discovery of a Titanoboa skull allowed them to investigate this hypothesis.
Hunks of jawbone indicated that the Titanoboa’s mouth, along with its whole head, could have been well over two feet long. A hinge bone attaching to the skull allowed the back of the lower jaw to extend behind Titanoboa’s brain. Because of that, its mouth could open extremely wide. The paleontologists’ investigation demonstrated that the Titanoboa was more like a boa.
The awesome size of this fossil brings up questions about how this snake became so large, and what it needed to survive. In 2009 the Cerrejón crew that Titanoboa had to have lived in a climate with a mean temperature between 86 and 93 degrees Fahrenheit. While this is much higher than the average for today’s tropical forests, which is 82 degrees, there have been disagreements about how best to estimate the temperature 58 million years ago. Like modern snakes, Titanoboa was a cold-blooded animal. Its body temperature relied on its habitat. Reptiles grow larger in hotter climates where they are able to take in enough energy to maintain their needed metabolic rate. In this case, extreme heat helped make this snake a giant.
This year the paleontologists will return to Cerrejón to find more fossils, more species, and more evidence of what the world was like near the equator 58 million years ago.
[Sources: en.wikipedia.org; Smithsonian Discovery]