Meet Gigantophis garstini, an Enormous Prehistoric Snake

By: Desiree Bowie  | 
Drawing of a snake wrapped around a goat and swallowing the animal head first
The reticulated python is currently the largest snake in the world, capable of swallowing a goat whole — and it's still smaller than Gigantophis garstini was. Dorling Kindersley / Getty Images/Dorling Kindersley

Gigantophis was a massive prehistoric serpent that emerged during the Eocene epoch, about 26 million years after the dinosaurs ruled the Earth. Gigantophis garstini, as it's scientifically known, was a true giant of its time, believed to have measured around 36 feet (11 meters) in length.

Residing in the ancient ecosystems of Northern Africa, this gargantuan creature overshadowed even the modern retic and anaconda in size, making it one of the biggest snakes ever to have existed.


Through paleontological findings and scientific speculation, we offer a glimpse of this colossal reptile and an era when giants continued to dominate the Earth, both on land and in water.

The Longest Prehistoric Snake

The prehistoric era was home to some of the most fascinating and gigantic creatures, including the python-like Gigantophis garstini. This giant snake dwelled in what is now known as Egypt around 40 million years ago.

A discovery at Fayum in the Western Desert, which included parts of a spinal column and a jaw fragment, has shed light on the creature's immense size.


Due to its considerable length, the Gigantophis is the longest prehistoric snake, surpassing even modern-day giants like the reticulated python. While the retic holds the current record for the world's longest snake alive today, the prehistoric species was about 3.28 feet (1 meter) longer.

Vertebrate Paleontology and Estimated Lengths

Dr. Jason Head, a vertebrate paleontologist associated with the Smithsonian Institution, estimated the size of the serpent by comparing its fossilized vertebrae to those of the largest contemporary snakes.

This approach is a common practice in paleontology, where scientists use the known dimensions of living animals to make inferences about the size and characteristics of extinct species.

Native Range of Gigantophis

The broad distribution of Gigantophis remains in North Africa and South Asia suggests that the extinct snake had a much wider distribution than previously thought, perhaps encompassing other areas of Africa, the Middle East and possibly even further into Asia.

The finding suggests that the genus Gigantophis began diversifying earlier in the Eocene epoch.

This earlier diversification was inferred from fossils identified by Charles W. Andrews in 1901, discovered in Al Fayum, located in eastern Egypt. Notably, the Gigantophis' remains were found alongside other marine vertebrates, including whales, sirens, marine turtles, crocodilians and other large marine snakes, which were likely part of its diet.

Head speculates that it may have also preyed on large reptiles, like ancient crocodiles and Basal proboscideans, a group of primitive or early-stage Proboscidea order members. The giant constrictor was believed to be an aquatic snake that could hide underwater, lying in wait until prey approached.


Taxonomic Status

The extinct species is part of the complex web of life that once thrived on Earth. The prehistoric snake belongs to the kingdom Animalia, indicating it was a multicellular organism, feeding on other organisms and possessing specialized sensory organs and a nervous system.

It falls under the Chordata phylum, characterized by the presence of a spinal cord, a defining feature of all vertebrates.


Within the Reptilia class, Gigantophis is grouped with other cold-blooded animals with scaly skin, a trait typical of reptiles. Its membership in the order Squamata places it among lizards and snakes, known for their unique skull structure and the ability to shed their skin.

The massive serpent is classified as a member of the Madtsoiidae family, which thrived during the Cretaceous era when dinosaurs roamed the Earth. The now-extinct family, which includes other ancient snakes like Wonambi and Madsoia, boasts an approximately 100 million-year lineage. The first identified Madtsoiid snake was Gigantophis, discovered in ancient Egypt within 40-million-year-old rocks.

A New Potential Relative

For a long time, Gigantophis was the only known species in its genus, primarily due to the fragmentary nature of the fossil record from that era.

However, this changed in 2014 when scientists discovered snake fossils from the Gigantophis genus in Southern Pakistan's early Paleocene Khadro Formation. This marked the first documented occurrence of the genus outside of Africa.

While the snake fossils in Pakistan display minor distinctions from the well-established G. garstini species, the available evidence does not allow for definitive categorization beyond labeling them Gigantophis sp.

Notably, Gigantophis sp. from the Khadro Formation appears to share a closer genetic affinity with G. garstini than any other known species. This suggests the intriguing possibility of snake migration between these two regions during the Paleocene or possibly earlier.


Physical Description

As a prehistoric species, the specific physical features of Gigantophis garstini are primarily reconstructed based on fossil records and comparisons with modern snakes. However, paleontologists have inferred several features based on its estimated size and the general characteristics of similar giant, constricting snakes.

We've already discussed the serpent's jaw-dropping size, which sets it apart from its serpent relatives, but aside from that, it shares many characteristics with modern snakes. For one, Gigantophis likely had scales. However, the texture, color and pattern of these scales are unknown. There's speculation that they provided camouflage within its environment, much like contemporary constrictors.


Like its contemporary brethren, Gigantophis likely had a proportionately large head with powerful jaws. This is typical of constrictor snakes, which require strong jaws to grasp and hold onto prey before coiling around it.

Like other snake species, the prehistoric serpent probably had numerous sharp, backward-facing teeth, aiding in gripping prey effectively, a characteristic of many nonvenomous constricting snakes. The body of Gigantophis would have been elongated and cylindrical, typical of constrictors, allowing it flexibility and agility to coil around prey.

Without direct fossil evidence of the skin, color or detailed body structure, much of the description of Gigantophis garstini remains speculative and based on comparisons with modern and other prehistoric snakes.


The Largest Snake Ever: Titanoboa

Gigantophis held the title of the world's largest snake for more than a century — until Titanoboa was discovered in the 2000s.

Titanoboa cerrejonensis, now considered the largest known snake in history, lived approximately 58 to 60 million years ago during the Paleocene epoch, a period just after the extinction of the dinosaurs.


The name "Titanoboa" reflects its massive size, combining "titan," a nod to the titans of ancient Greek mythology, with "boa," referring to its classification within the boa family.


In 2003, this prehistoric reptile was discovered in the coal mines of Cerrejón in La Guajira, Colombia, by a team of scientists and researchers, including Jonathan Bloch from the Florida Museum of Natural History and Carlos Jaramillo from the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama.

Scientifically, Titanoboa's discovery has spurred further research into how ecosystems recovered and evolved after the mass extinction that wiped out the dinosaurs. For example, the snake's existence suggests that the tropics, once considered cooler, were much warmer following the extinction event.


It would be years before they were officially scientifically described. The snake is believed to have measured around 42 feet (about 13 meters) in length and could have weighed as much as 2,500 pounds (1,135 kilograms). For comparison, the snake weighed as much as a Ford Fiesta.

Its habitat was in the warm, tropical environments of northern South America. It thrived in these hot and humid conditions necessary to support its cold-blooded metabolism. The diet of Titanoboa likely included large fish and possibly other marine animals, evidenced by its habitat and massive size.


Other Giant Prehistoric Snakes

While the Titanoboa and Gigantophis are often celebrated as the heavyweights of the ancient serpentine world, several other large prehistoric snakes also roamed the Earth back in the day.

Madtsoia bai

This ancient serpent lived during the Late Cretaceous period and was found primarily in South America and Madagascar. Reaching lengths of up to 23 feet (7 meters), the snake had a robust build and elongated form, suggesting that it was an adept hunter, capable of overpowering large prey with its muscular coils.


Sanajeh indicus

Unearthed in India, this snake from the Late Cretaceous era reached up to 11.5 feet (3.5 meters) in length. Sanajeh indicus is notable for a fossil discovery that depicted it preying on a dinosaur hatchling, providing a rare insight into the predator-prey dynamics of that era.

Palaeophis colossaeus

This ancient marine snake dwelled in the seas that covered parts of Europe and Africa during the Eocene epoch. With estimated lengths of up to 32.8 feet (10 meters), Palaeophis colossaeus likely fed on various marine life, potentially whales, using its size and agility to dominate the ancient seas.

Wonambi naracoortensis

Residing in Australia during the Pleistocene epoch, Wonambi naracoortensis was not just large, measuring up to 6 meters (19.7 feet), but also an intriguing link to modern snakes.

It resembled modern pythons and boas, suggesting a close evolutionary relationship. Its fossils offer vital clues about the transition of snakes from prehistoric times to the present.

Pterosphenus schucherti

This lesser-known prehistoric snake lived during the Eocene epoch in what is now North America. Stretching up to 19.7 feet (6 meters) in length, Pterosphenus schucherti was a marine species adept at navigating the ancient waterways.

Its streamlined body and aquatic adaptations highlight the diverse habitats that prehistoric snakes occupied.

This article was written in conjunction with AI technology, then fact-checked and edited by a HowStuffWorks editor.