It was as big as a bus, weighed a ton, swallowed crocodiles like hors d’oeuvres and was as mean as a snake. Wait. It was a snake — the biggest snake that ever slithered the Earth — or so its 60-million-year-old remains would indicate.
Frankensnake? Snake-asaurus? No; astonished scientists have named it the Titanoboa cerrejonensis.
An international team led by the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute found the fossilized bones of the record-breaking 2,500-pound, 43-foot-long, 4-foot-wide prehistoric creature in a coal mine at Cerrejon in Colombia, close to the equator. And that size is a conservative estimate.
The monster inspired some talk right out of the circus sideshow among the researchers, and no wonder. They also uncovered the skeletons of doomed giant turtles and crocs that had been dinner.
“This colossal, boa-constrictor-like creature stretched longer than a city bus and weighed more than a car. It’s the biggest snake the world has ever known,” said lead author Jason Head, a paleontologist with the University of Toronto, who analyzed the remains.
The snake was so wide that it would have had to “squeeze through a doorway to enter a room,” he added.
“At its greatest width, the snake would have come up to about your hips. The size is pretty amazing,” said Indiana University geologist David Polly, who pieced together the all-important vertebrae from the dig site by using a contemporary snake skeleton as a model.
The blackened backbone is about five times that of today’s typical boa constrictor, allowing the researchers to extrapolate the gargantuan size of their find.
They theorized that the big snake spent most of its time in or near water. It also was a survivor. The Titanoboa was still going about its business some 6 million years after the last dinosaurs disappeared from the planet, Mr. Polly said.
“Our team went a step further and asked: How warm would the Earth have to be to support a body of this size?” he asked.
The temperatures were at least 10 degrees higher than what is typical now at the equator’s hottest point, he said.
Scientists generally agree that there is a correlation between temperature and size: As the Earth’s temperature increases, so do the sizes of coldblooded animals. The world’s biggest snake was a perfect test case for this theory.
“Tropical ecosystems of South America were surprisingly different 60 million years ago,” said Jonathan Bloch, a vertebrate paleontologist with the Florida Museum of Natural History.
“It was a rain forest, like today, but it was even hotter, and the coldblooded reptiles were all substantially larger. The result was, among other things, the largest snakes the world has ever seen - and, hopefully, ever will,” Mr. Bloch said.
The team published its findings in the journal Nature, to be released Thursday.