It was the first epoch after the age of dinosaurs in a part of the world that had recently recovered from an asteroid blast of epic magnitudes. The blast birthed the tropical rainforests along the equator that exist today.
A landscape that was damp and swampy, covered in dense tropical foliage — ample places for Titanaboa to hide.
What Was the Biggest Snake in the World?
Titanaboa, the biggest snake in the world, lived during the Paleocene around 58 to 60 million years ago. It thrived alongside other enormous species like 13-foot crocodiles and 8-foot turtles. They might have looked similar to today's anaconda snake, only much larger.
It was the beginning of the age of mammals, but they hadn’t yet had time to grow. Still small and scattered about, trying desperately to escape the wrath of the giant reptiles that were booming in a much warmer climate. Mammals hadn’t yet had the time to diversify and fill all the niches they do today.
How Big Was the Titanoboa?
According to Carlos Jaramillo, a paleontologist at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, Titanoboa was about 45 feet on average, which is a third larger than the green anaconda snake, the largest snake that exists today. Jaramillo and his team have built two life-size models of the beastly snake to show its sheer size. “It is only when you are standing next to it that you realize how big it truly was,” he says.
All of the remains of Titanoboa thus far have been found in a coal mine deep in the rainforests of Colombia and were described in research first published in 2009 in the journal Nature. They speak of a time when a warmer climate birthed enormous species that thrived in the thick humidity.
According to the study, “the great size of this 58 to 60 million-year-old snake indicates a mean annual neotropical temperature of 30-34 °C (86-93 °F), substantially higher than previous estimates for that period.” Since then, the coal mine has uncovered several specimens, showing that they were likely one of the more abundant species living in the habitat.
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Where Did the Largest Snake In the World Live?
The biggest snake in the world was too heavy to live in trees. So Titanoboa would have occupied the ground, living close to the water, inactive most of the time and waiting patiently to pounce on any number of giant turtles or crocodiles that fell victim to its forceful bite.
“It would have swallowed them whole and digested them for months, eating three to four times per year,” says Jaramillo. Huge turtles with broken shells have also been excavated, which likely resulted from turtles that were attacked by the giant creature but somehow survived.
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When Did the Titanoboa Go Extinct?
The Paleocene in this part of the world illustrates an ecosystem that could result from global climate change, where there’s no ice on the poles and temperatures are hotter and more humid in the rainforest. Still, it’s also a difficult place to study, says Jonathan Bloch, a paleontologist at the University of Florida.
“We know very little about it, especially around the equator (where Titanoboa would have lived) because it’s hard to find fossils in a place that has such abundant biodiversity,” says Bloch.
To find fossils, you also have to be able to see and explore rocks that hide in the rainforest because they are often covered by vegetation. “Most of our understanding of the Paleocene comes from higher latitude localities that are in more desert regions,” Bloch says.
That may be part of the reason that we’re not sure when or why Titanoboa went extinct. It could have just gone extinct as many animals do and given rise to the smaller set of snake species that now call the rainforest home. As the world cooled off, species got smaller, so it begs to question whether a warmer planet could birth the enormous reptiles of yesteryear.
Bloch is skeptical because much of the habitat where the Titanoboa snake and other species thrived in the tropical rainforest has been diminished and deforested by an even greater predator known as humans.