Titanoboa!

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Just wait — this one will be featured in some cheesy Sci-Fi channel creature feature in a few months. Paleontologists have dug up a fossil boa that lived 58-60 million years ago. They haven’t found a complete skeleton, but there’s enough to get an estimate of the size. Look at these vertebrae!

titanoboa.jpeg

a, Type specimen (UF/IGM 1) in anterior view compared to scale with a precloacal vertebra from approximately 65% along the precloacal column of a 3.4 m Boa constrictor. Type specimen (UF/IGM 1) shown in posterior view (b), left lateral view (c) and dorsal view (d). Seven articulated precloacal vertebrae (UF/IGM 3) in dorsal view (e). Articulated precloacal vertebra and rib (UF/IGM 4) in anterior view (f). Precloacal vertebra (paratype specimen UF/IGM 2) in anterior view (g) and ventral view (h). Precloacal vertebra (UF/IGM 5) in anterior view (i) and posterior view (j). All specimens are to scale.

Just to put it in perspective, the small pale blob between a and b in the photo above is an equivalent vertebra from an extant boa, which was 3.4 meters long. The extinct beast is estimated to have been about 13 meters long, weighing over 1100 kg (for us Americans, that’s 42 feet and 2500 pounds). This is a very big snake, the largest ever found.

The authors used the size of this snake to estimate the temperature of this region of South America 60 million years ago. Snakes are poikilotherms, depending on external sources of heat to maintain a given level of metabolic activity, and so available temperature means are limiting factors on how large they can grow. By comparing this animal’s size to that of modern tropical snakes, and extrapolating from a measured curve of size to mean annual temperature, they were able to calculate that the average ambient temperature was 30-34°C (American cluestick: about 90°F); less than that, and this snake would have died.

From other data, they know that the atmospheric CO2 concentration at this time was about 2000 parts per million, and that the forests it lived in were thick, wet, and rainy. They also estimate that slightly later, about 56 million years ago, mean tropical temperatures would have soared to 38-40°C (102°F), and would have killed off many species.

So there you go…this is one place I think I’d avoid if I had a time machine. It was a thick-aired, muggy, sweltering oven, with giant snakes crawling about. They were likely to have eaten large crocodilians, so I suspect a time-traveling human would be nothing but a quick hors d’ouevre. They’re still interesting, though, especially as an example of evolution and climate science meeting in a mutually revealing fashion.

titan_recon.jpeg


Head JJ, Block JI, Hastings AK, Bourque JR, Cadena EA, Herrera FA, Polly D, Jaramillo CA (2009) Giant boid snake from the Palaeocene neotropics reveals hotter past equatorial temperatures. Nature 457(7230):715-718.

47 Comments

Imagine the shoes and handbags …not to mention belts…that can be carved outta that critter…now all we got ta do is find a volunteer ;-)

Pshaw. This is clear evidence for young-earth creationism. You find fossil evidence of THE serpent and you can’t see it for what it is? :-)

We have got to get this MF snake on a MF plane with Samuel L. Jackson!

“Just wait — this one will be featured in some cheesy Sci-Fi channel creature feature in a few months.”

Too late. Anaconda (1997)http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0118615/

eric Wrote:

Pshaw. This is clear evidence for young-earth creationism. You find fossil evidence of THE serpent and you can’t see it for what it is? :-)

Nah, that’s not THE serpent. Check the picture. See the clouds rolling in? A few days later the poor guy was extinct. ;-)

“We’re gonna need a bigger boat.”

Snakes are poikilotherms, depending on external sources of heat to maintain a given level of metabolic activity, and so available temperature means are limiting factors on how large they can grow.

This raises an interesting question. If I were to go down to my local pet store, pick up a baby python and raise him in an environment right at the edge of his metabolic tolerance, say, a constant 98 degrees and enhanced oxygen level, would I get a titanic snake at the end of 10 years?

I know I wouldn’t get something this size, but is the limiting factor on snake growth environmental, or internal?

“Why did it have to be a snake? - I hate snakes!”

stevaroni said:

Snakes are poikilotherms, depending on external sources of heat to maintain a given level of metabolic activity, and so available temperature means are limiting factors on how large they can grow.

This raises an interesting question. If I were to go down to my local pet store, pick up a baby python and raise him in an environment right at the edge of his metabolic tolerance, say, a constant 98 degrees and enhanced oxygen level, would I get a titanic snake at the end of 10 years?

I know I wouldn’t get something this size, but is the limiting factor on snake growth environmental, or internal?

I heard a talk by creationist Donald Chittick from the ICR many years ago where he was especially addressing kids (at a church talk of course). He said dinosaurs got so big ‘cause they ate a lot of food. Well, now there’s the definitive answer to your question from the creationist perspective. I suspect if we want tall basketball players they should eat lots of Wheaties.

WOW! CO2 concentration at this time was about 2000 parts per million and a mean temperature of 102F. There’s got to be a hoax about humans driving SUV’s and eating red meat somewhere in that story.

I’m having trouble relating length and mass to the other metric that will help me truly visualize this thing, diameter. I’m guessing this guy is about 1 meter thick (when not engorged with a crocodile), way too big to hug. Am I anywhere close?

Strangebrew said:

Imagine the shoes and handbags …not to mention belts…that can be carved outta that critter…now all we got ta do is find a volunteer ;-)

I was chatting over email with a reader from Florida who had been into my aviation site and mentioned something about the Burmese pythons that had got loose and were making a nuisance of themselves in the Everglades. He said he’d run into one while hunting: “The tail was over here but the head popped up over there. I didn’t hang around to find out any more about it.”

Cheers – MrG / http://www.vectorsite.net/indexav.html

That’s… just… awesome!

I just shared that with a co-worker and we were commenting, mouths agape, at how amazing that snake must have been.

What a great find!

Frank J said:

eric Wrote:

Pshaw. This is clear evidence for young-earth creationism. You find fossil evidence of THE serpent and you can’t see it for what it is? :-)

Nah, that’s not THE serpent. Check the picture. See the clouds rolling in? A few days later the poor guy was extinct. ;-)

It would have had its arms and legs freshly ripped off, according to the dossier.

My neighbor claims she was chased down the road by a 20-foot long (black rat) snake (she’s Irish).

Marlin Perkins: Now Jim will wrestle the 42-foot boa, right after this message from Mutual of Omaha Insurance.

stevaroni said:

This raises an interesting question. If I were to go down to my local pet store, pick up a baby python and raise him in an environment right at the edge of his metabolic tolerance, say, a constant 98 degrees and enhanced oxygen level, would I get a titanic snake at the end of 10 years?

I know I wouldn’t get something this size, but is the limiting factor on snake growth environmental, or internal?

Over 30 years ago, when I worked at a nature center in CT for the summer, one of the naturalists (a petite woman) lived on the property with her husband (also a naturalist) and several pets, including a very large and obese boa. One day, after handling one of our captive mammals (a descented skunk named Flower, I think) she went home and without thinking, reached into the snake enclosure to change the water dish. The snake smelled the “prey” and grabbed her hand, then started working up her arm. She finally filled the tub with water and put the snake under until it finally came up for air.

She told me later (after appearing at work with a heavily bandaged arm) that while thinking of what to do to make the snake release, she was envisioning her husband coming home to find the snake with a very large bulge in it…

Marlin Perkins: “Now Jim will wrestle the 42-foot boa, right after this message from Mutual of Omaha Insurance.”

Clearly I’m not the only one to notice that Jim got to do all the catching-the-giant-crocodile-in-the-swamp things while Marlin stayed suspiciously dry and clean. Or sometimes handled a Koala.

Clearly, Jim needed a better agent.

-this is one place I think I’d avoid if I had a time machine.

this is one place I think I’d go straight to if I had a time machine! :D

- Clearly I’m not the only one to notice that Jim got to do all the catching-the-giant-crocodile-in-the-swamp things while Marlin stayed suspiciously dry and clean. Or sometimes handled a Koala.

Every doco needs cannon fodder. When I film, I always bring some sparklingly fresh young thing with me.… who quickly realises that holding the end of the snake that doesn’t has fangs instead has its own smelly perils! Fang vs funk!! :D

Marlin was pretty old at the time of those TV shows. If he tried wrestling a big snake, Mrs. Perkins would have gotten a large payment from Mutual Of Omaha. My Dad remembers seeing Marlin at the St.Louis Zoo years back.

Couple of comments - a. Marlin was selling life insurance: “While Jim is busy with this unusually large and aggressive anaconda I’d like to talk to you about how Mutual of Omaha can take care of you in times of uncertainty. We’ll check back to see how Jim is doing in a moment.” Don’t you just feel like you could use some life insurance? b. How did this thing move? Having known a number of really big modern snakes, 200-300 pounders, albeit captive and fat, how did this thing get around? Maybe like the really big anacondas of Suriname - aquatic? Any indication of habitat in the surrounding rocks of the fossil? c. I’m going to say this and then run and hide under a rock - poikilothermy, as I remember, mistakenly perhaps, is rather passive - take on the temp of the environment, like most fish. Ectothermy, as with most reptiles and many amphibians, describes a more dynamic interaction with the environment to actively maintain specific body temps at particular times in particular regions of the body. See Heatwole for pythons. Gaaa. A rock a rock! David

It’s still a snake.

Yawn;

It’s still a snake.

And you’re still a monkey. So?

stevaroni said:

Yawn;

It’s still a snake.

And you’re still a monkey. So?

Speak for yourself.

I do not wish to meddle with any man’s family matters, or quarrel with any one about his relatives. If a man prefers to look for his kindred in the zoo, it is no concern of mine; if he wants to believe that the founder of his family was an ape, a gorilla, a mud turtle, or a Monera, he may do so; but when he insists that I shall trace my lineage in that direction, I say ”No Sir!”…I prefer that my genealogical table shall end as it now does, with “Cainan, which was the son of Seth, which was the son of Adam, which was the son of God.

- prefer that my genealogical table shall end as it now does, with “Cainan, which was the son of Seth, which was the son of Adam, which was the son of God.

Prefering has nothing to do with reality. I wish I was rich, famous, handsome and had published first author Nature papers. Wait, I am actually all of those things so I guess you can believe in your death-cult imaginary sky-fairy! :D :D :D

Dr. Bryan Grieg Fry said:

- prefer that my genealogical table shall end as it now does, with “Cainan, which was the son of Seth, which was the son of Adam, which was the son of God.

Prefering has nothing to do with reality. I wish I was rich, famous, handsome and had published first author Nature papers. Wait, I am actually all of those things so I guess you can believe in your death-cult imaginary sky-fairy! :D :D :D

The author of this blog entry might prefer that his daughter is attractive, but it would be rude of others to suggest otherwise.

hahahahahahaha

Wouldn’t know what my 19 kids look like. In my attempt to counter-balance the religious-white-trash-who-breed-like-bunnies I sold my sperm all through University. Thus not only did do my part to facilitate the Darwinian uber-race but I also turned a profit for something I’d be doing anyway! D

However, I can only assume that Nordic genes are dominant and therefore they’d be too attractive and too smart to ever fall for an IDiot

mrg (iml8) said:

Strangebrew said:

Imagine the shoes and handbags …not to mention belts…that can be carved outta that critter…now all we got ta do is find a volunteer ;-)

I was chatting over email with a reader from Florida who had been into my aviation site and mentioned something about the Burmese pythons that had got loose and were making a nuisance of themselves in the Everglades. He said he’d run into one while hunting: “The tail was over here but the head popped up over there. I didn’t hang around to find out any more about it.”

Cheers – MrG / http://www.vectorsite.net/indexav.html

Yeah…that’s a real shame. Can’t believe the irresponsibility of some folk. I had a Burmese Python in college for a semester - I was taking care of it for a friend who was going into herpetology. The snake’s name was Snuggles, which was surprisingly apt, though not for the reason you might think. Snuggles was a very tame python by any standards, but he did like body warmth and would coil around your bare skin just to feel the warmth. He was a great snake, but got unmanageable when he began to exceed 10-12 feet; just too hefty to pick up. Plus his food requirements required a higher income level then we college students had access to. So, he was donated to a reptile zoo.

GvlGeologist, FCD said:

She told me later (after appearing at work with a heavily bandaged arm) that while thinking of what to do to make the snake release, she was envisioning her husband coming home to find the snake with a very large bulge in it…

I’m being swallowed by a boa constrictor

I’m being swallowed by a boa constrictor

I’m being swallowed by a boa constrictor

And I don’t like it very much

Oh no he swallowed my toe

Oh me he swallowed my knee

Oh fiddle he’s up to my middle

Oh heck he swallowed my neck

Oh dread he swallowed my MMMPPPHHH

– the late great Shel Silverstein

Isn’t he already a movie star, though?

I thought snakes generally started at the head end? ;)

But that would make the song a lot shorter.

Cheers – MrG / http://www.vectorsite.net/gblog.html

- But that would make the song a lot shorter.

reminds of a time at University during a philosophy class when the instructor, who was a total Shakespeare groupie, was going on and on about the nature of ‘tragic flaw’ and whether or not Hamlet’s hesitation counted as one (apparently not by the strict definition). Thus it was an exploration of the nature of his hesitation. etc etc etc. I piped up with what I thought was a relevant observation. That Hamlet’s hesitation was inevitable and had to be built in by Shakespeare because the plot was pretty thin and otherwise the play would have been over in about 10 minutes and Shakespeare wouldn’t have made any money! :D :D :D :D

So THAT’s where Kari got the verses with which to taunt Tori when they were burying him in sand. (For a Pirate-themed Mythbuster episode.)I had assumed she had spent the morning dreaming them up.

Ok…I must confess a pet peeve I have regarding the presumed “badness factor” that some giant creatures get tagged with that then seem to take on a life of their own. Case in point, the now completely ridiculous speculations about this creature snacking on crocodiles as though they were French fries.

First, while I’m not arguing that this wasn’t a large and likely powerful specimen and that it could potentially have eaten a “normal” sized (say 15 foot) croc, the fact is even the largest snakes today do not routinely go after small crocs or even a great many things even a 1/4 of their own size, nevermind things less than a third. Further, many specimens of large crodilians, including Deinosuchus, have been found and lived around the time this snake existed, and certainly these reptiles were NOT on Titanoboa’s menu.

Well, this creature is basically a giant anaconda and anacondas do regularly snack on caimans. However, I do agree it must be kept in perspective. An anaconda will take larger mammalian prey than it would crocodilian prey. Mammals are easy kills by comparison.

Well, SOME mammals. Humans are pretty hard to kill, in our own element! [i]Unless the snakes figure out how to open doors[/i]…

Case in point, the now completely ridiculous speculations about this creature snacking on crocodiles as though they were French fries.

It isn’t all that far fetched. The Burmese pythons in the Everglades have been found eating alligators, including large ones. Some ecologists claim that the Burmese pythons and the alligators are battling it out (in the ecological sense) for top predator in that environment.

Occasionally a python in Asia catches and eats a human. For a snake that weighs a ton, 1/4 body weight prey would be 500 lbs.

This snake is thought to be aquatic like the anacondas which limits what it can be supposed to eat.

Robin said:

First, while I’m not arguing that this wasn’t a large and likely powerful specimen and that it could potentially have eaten a “normal” sized (say 15 foot) croc, the fact is even the largest snakes today do not routinely go after small crocs or even a great many things even a 1/4 of their own size, nevermind things less than a third. Further, many specimens of large crodilians, including Deinosuchus, have been found and lived around the time this snake existed, and certainly these reptiles were NOT on Titanoboa’s menu.

Deinosuchus died out 80 million years ago, about 20 million years before Titanoboa

Wheels: No problem if the snake had vocal cords: Knock-Knock “Who is is?” “Landlord-Landlord!” etc…

(Sorry about taking this thread further afield than it already is, or if others have already posted somthing similar.)

I say ”No Sir!”…I prefer that my genealogical table shall end as it now does, with “Cainan, which was the son of Seth, which was the son of Adam, which was the son of God.

You can prefer to believe anything you like.

You can also prefer to believe that Elvis is alive, man never landed on the moon, heavier than air flight is impossible and that the Russians paid the Cubans to hire the Mob to kill Kennedy.

Lots of people believe these things too. All these people are wrong and we know that they’re wrong because we have overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Most, of these people, whom I charitably call “conspiracy nuts”, are types, I suspect, that you, yourself, look at and say “Wow. How deep in denial can you possibly be?”.

I prefer that you draw your own inferences from the comparison.

-Sorry about taking this thread further afield than it already is

mate, unless we put this sucker into orbit it could not get any further afield than it already it!! :D :D :D

Moving it back to center, an interesting aspect about this is that this is the epitome of the constricting condition. This is not a basal state for snakes but rather an extreme secondary form of prey capture. The pythons and boas are not monophyletic so it has evolved twice within the ‘basal’ snakes and independently within the advanced snakes (the ratsnake clade). Intriguingly, the pythons and boas have also independently evolved head-seeking pits within their respective clades.

Convergence is my favorite part of evolution :)

Since we have someone babbling about descent from Adam: did you ever notice how the people who complain about “gaps” in the fossil record can’t produce their _own_ genealogy for more than a few generations, let alone all the way back to someone Biblical? Somehow those “gaps” don’t seem to bother the creationists.

Stanton said:

Robin said:

First, while I’m not arguing that this wasn’t a large and likely powerful specimen and that it could potentially have eaten a “normal” sized (say 15 foot) croc, the fact is even the largest snakes today do not routinely go after small crocs or even a great many things even a 1/4 of their own size, nevermind things less than a third. Further, many specimens of large crodilians, including Deinosuchus, have been found and lived around the time this snake existed, and certainly these reptiles were NOT on Titanoboa’s menu.

Deinosuchus died out 80 million years ago, about 20 million years before Titanoboa

Fair enough, though given the reasons for this snake’s size, I would bet that other reptiles also attained sizes larger than their modern cousins. Regardless though, I submit that such a snake more likely dined regularly on mammals than crodilians. I just think that a crocadilian-eater more tantalizes the imagination.

DavidK said:

stevaroni said:

Snakes are poikilotherms, depending on external sources of heat to maintain a given level of metabolic activity, and so available temperature means are limiting factors on how large they can grow.

This raises an interesting question. If I were to go down to my local pet store, pick up a baby python and raise him in an environment right at the edge of his metabolic tolerance, say, a constant 98 degrees and enhanced oxygen level, would I get a titanic snake at the end of 10 years?

I know I wouldn’t get something this size, but is the limiting factor on snake growth environmental, or internal?

I heard a talk by creationist Donald Chittick from the ICR many years ago where he was especially addressing kids (at a church talk of course). He said dinosaurs got so big ‘cause they ate a lot of food. Well, now there’s the definitive answer to your question from the creationist perspective. I suspect if we want tall basketball players they should eat lots of Wheaties.

Creationism is not science no more than fortune telling is.So waht you hear from such people who claim be creationist has no validity.

Stanton said:

Robin said:

First, while I’m not arguing that this wasn’t a large and likely powerful specimen and that it could potentially have eaten a “normal” sized (say 15 foot) croc, the fact is even the largest snakes today do not routinely go after small crocs or even a great many things even a 1/4 of their own size, nevermind things less than a third. Further, many specimens of large crodilians, including Deinosuchus, have been found and lived around the time this snake existed, and certainly these reptiles were NOT on Titanoboa’s menu.

Deinosuchus died out 80 million years ago, about 20 million years before Titanoboa

You claim that Boas do not go after crocs is not correct. There are a well documented case of escapee Boas going after salt water crocs and full grown alligators in Florida. One huge boa died with he held a 20 foot gator in death throes trying to eat him but it seems the gator was a little more than a match for him which Heimlichs maneuver could not rescue –had someone been there to do it.

Mike said:

“Just wait — this one will be featured in some cheesy Sci-Fi channel creature feature in a few months.”

Too late. Anaconda (1997)http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0118615/

A few months? Hah, you’re giving them a lot of credit. By March they’ll have something in the making.

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This page contains a single entry by PZ Myers published on February 5, 2009 10:28 AM.

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