Titanoboa: Monster Snake

Smithsonian Traveling Exhibition Introduces World’s Largest Snake

Opens March 19, 2016

Titanoboa: Monster Snake.  The scientifically accurate full-scale replica of the massive reptile on exhibit at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.

Titanoboa: Monster Snake. The scientifically accurate full-scale replica of the massive reptile on exhibit at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.

Idaho Museum of Natural History Shows Off Prehistoric Snake Replica and Fossil of 60-Million-Year-Old Snake

Slithering in at 48 feet long and weighing an estimated one-and-a-half tons, a realistic replica of the world’s largest snake is on exhibit at Idaho Museum of Natural History (IMNH) at Idaho State University (ISU) between March 19 and June 12, 2016. Sixty million years ago, in the era after the mass extinction of the dinosaurs, scientists believe that a colossal snake related to modern boa constrictors thrived in a hot tropical climate.

“Can you imagine a snake so big it could swallow a whole crocodile?! I can’t wait to see this monster in Pocatello!” said Leif Tapanila, Director of IMNH.

“Titanoboa: Monster Snake” includes the snake replica and two vertebrae casts made from the original fossils: a 17-foot-long modern green anaconda and the vertebra from Titanoboa, as the giant snake is called. Videos produced by the Smithsonian Channel tell the story of this amazing scientific discovery. The exhibition is a collaboration between the Florida Museum of Natural History, the University of Nebraska, and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. “Titanoboa” will travel to 15-cities on a national tour organized by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service.

Scientists have recovered dozens of monster snakes from the Cerejón coal mine in northern Colombia; the dry desolate area is a far cry from the Paleocene rainforest of Titanoboa’s era. Courtesy Carlos Jaramillo, Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute

Scientists have recovered dozens of monster snakes from the Cerejón coal mine in northern Colombia; the dry desolate area is a far cry from the Paleocene rainforest of Titanoboa’s era. Courtesy Carlos Jaramillo, Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute

The startling discovery of Titanoboa was made by a team of scientists working in one of the world’s largest open-pit coal mines at Cerrejón in La Guajira, Colombia. In 2002, a Colombian student visiting the coal mine made an intriguing discovery: a fossilized leaf that hinted at an ancient rainforest from the Paleocene epoch. Over the following decade, collecting expeditions led by the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama and the Florida Museum of Natural History at the University of Florida opened a unique window into what some scientists believe to be the first rainforest on Earth. Fossil finds included giant turtles and crocodiles, as well as the first-known bean plants and some of the earliest banana, avocado and chocolate plants. But their most spectacular discovery was the fossilized vertebrae of a previously undiscovered species of snake.

Florida Museum of Natural History researcher Jonathan Bloch shows the size difference between vertebrae belonging to the giant snake Titanoboa cerrejonensis, left, and an anaconda, right. Based on the diameter of the fossilized Titanoboa vertebrae, the researchers estimate that Titanoboa, which lived 60 million years ago, probably grew 45 feet long. The anaconda measured a relatively short 17 feet long.

Florida Museum of Natural History researcher Jonathan Bloch shows the size difference between vertebrae belonging to the giant snake Titanoboa cerrejonensis, left, and an anaconda, right. Based on the diameter of the fossilized Titanoboa vertebrae, the researchers estimate that Titanoboa, which lived 60 million years ago, probably grew 45 feet long. The anaconda measured a relatively short 17 feet long. Photo by Jeff Gage, Florida Museum of Natural History

Jonathan Bloch of the Florida Museum of Natural History and Carlos Jaramillo of STRI joined forces with one of the world’s foremost experts in ancient snakes—Jason Head of the University of Nebraska—to unlock the mysteries of this ancient time and learn more about how Titanoboa lived and hunted. The fossilized remains revealed that, after the extinction of the dinosaurs, the tropics were warmer than today and witnessed the birth of the South American rainforest, in which huge creatures fought to become the Earth’s top predators. Dominating this era was Titanoboa, the undisputed largest snake in the history of the world.

University of Florida scientists Jason Bourque (left), Alex Hastings (center) and Jonathan Block (right) examine the bones of Titanoboa in the vertebrate paleontology lab at Florida Museum of Natural History.  Photo by Ray Carson, University of Florida

University of Florida scientists Jason Bourque (left), Alex Hastings (center) and Jonathan Block (right) examine the bones of Titanoboa in the vertebrate paleontology lab at Florida Museum of Natural History.
Photo by Ray Carson, University of Florida

Most fossil records of ancient snakes are made up of vertebrae like the one on exhibit that launched the Titanoboa investigation. Snake skulls are almost never found as they are extremely fragile and usually disintegrate—making it almost impossible to create a full and accurate picture of these extinct creatures. But during the filming of Titanoboa: Monster Snake, the scientists managed to uncover fragments of three skulls, allowing them to derive for the first time what this ancient giant looked like.

A Smithsonian Channel special explores how this snake would have lived by showing its living cousins; escaped Burmese Pythons in the Florida Everglades and native anacondas in the Venezuelan grasslands. The scientists’ research yields some intriguing and terrifying insights, including the climate in which it lived and size of the snake. All of these clues come together to paint a picture of Titanoboa’s world. Visit www.SmithsonianChannel.com/monstersnake to watch extra video content, play Titanoboa Monster Snake the game, and much more.

Founded in 1846, the Smithsonian Institution is the world’s largest museum and research complex, consisting of 19 museums and galleries, the National Zoological Park, nine research centers, and numerous educational and cultural programs. To learn more about the collaborating Smithsonian offices involved in this project, visit sites.si.edu and stri.si.edu.