Titanoboa: Exploring Colombia's Prehistoric Giant Snake

By: Mark Mancini & Desiree Bowie  | 
The Smithsonian created a full-scale, scientifically accurate replica of Titanoboa, the biggest snake to have ever roamed Earth, as part of a traveling exhibit. This display was part of the Museum of Natural History's exhibition in Washington, D.C., in 2013. The exhibit was the result of a collaboration between the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service, the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, the Smithsonian Channel, the Florida Museum of Natural History and the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. James DiLoreto, Smithsonian

The extinction of the dinosaurs (birds notwithstanding) 65.5 million years ago marked the dawn of our current geologic era: the Cenozoic, or the "Age of Mammals."

But don't let the nickname fool you. Although mammals diversified like crazy in the Cenozoic, Earth was not yet done with giant reptiles like Titanoboa cerrejonensis. The colossal snake would make modern anacondas and pythons look like spaghetti noodles in comparison.


A Lost World Full of Cenozoic Relics

Cerrejón is a vast coal mine in northern Colombia. Reuters reported that it produced 23.4 million metric tons of the stuff in the year 2021 alone. Yet, coal isn't the only precious commodity available there.

Working alongside the miners, paleontologists have unearthed thousands of Cenozoic fossils in Cerrejón. Approximately 58 million years old, these fossils date back to the early Paleocene and represent exotic plants, river fish, crocodile-like predators and big old turtles with 5.7-foot (1.72-meter) shells — to name a few.


These fossils tell us the area was tropical and swampy, much like the Amazon River Delta we have today. Wide-leaved jungle trees would've flanked ancient rivers choked with water plants. And out in the steaming wilderness, Titanoboa lurked.

The Largest Snake We Know Of

Fossils from 28 of these giant snakes have been recovered at Cerrejón. Unfortunately, we've yet to locate a complete skeleton.

Instead, the scientific community has had to make do with an assortment of ribs and vertebrae — plus some skull material. (Snake skulls are rarely found in the fossil record; due to their delicate structure, they often don't survive the processes of decomposition, scavenging and fossilization.)


Yet, even these finds speak volumes. By comparing the fossils to the bones of living snakes, we can get a pretty good idea of what Titanoboa looked like. For example, subtle clues in the vertebrae indicate that the animal was a boid.

It makes sense geographically: Boids are a family of snakes usually found in the Americas. Being nonvenomous, they tend to kill by constriction.

Of all the boids alive today, the one most closely related to Titanoboa might be the red-tailed boa, a denizen of Central and South America that can grow up to 13.2 feet (4 meters) long. Movie buffs who've seen "A Clockwork Orange" will probably recognize this reptile from its appearance in Alex's drawer.

Titanoboa also invites comparisons to a much larger boid: the green anaconda. Capable of weighing 440 pounds (200 kilograms), this South American serpent is the heaviest snake in the world. And it's plenty long, too: The biggest reliably measured specimen was 27.2 feet (8.3 meters) in length.

Over in Asia, the unrelated reticulated python — or "retic" — can exceed this figure, stretching up to 28 feet (8.5 meters) long in some cases. But the retic has a sleeker frame; experts don't think it can rival the anaconda's maximum weight.

Regardless, neither serpent could hold a candle to the sheer size of Titanoboa. Scientists estimate that the Paleocene predator stretched 42 to 47 feet (12.8 to 14.3 meters) in total body length. Theoretically, it might've tipped the scales at 1.25 tons (1.13 metric tons).

Similar in length to the Tyrannosaurus rex, Titanoboa cerrejonensis is the biggest snake in the world known to science, living or extinct.


What Would Titanoboa Eat?

The Smithsonian's Titanoboa was unveiled in New York’s Grand Central Station in 2012 and showed the massive snake wolfing down a crocodylian.
James DiLoreto, Smithsonian

Green anacondas famously eat capybaras, pig-sized rodents with semiaquatic habits. Smaller cousins of the American alligator and giant turtles are also on their menu.

To that end, a life-sized Titanoboa sculpture that the Smithsonian created went on display as part of its "Titanoboa: Monster Snake" exhibit. It was unveiled in New York's Grand Central Station in 2012 and showed the world's largest snake wolfing down a crocodylian.


The following year, a description of Titanoboa's head structure was published. Anatomically, the reptile's teeth and jaws resemble those of modern snakes who specialize in eating fish. If the gargantuan snake followed suit, it was the only boid on record with a fish-centric diet.

Like the green anaconda, Titanoboa probably spent a great deal of time in bodies of water. There, it could easily lug its massive body weight around — and beat the jungle's sweltering heat.


Scaly Thermometers?

The discovery of the snake species was first announced in a paper published in the journal Nature. The lead author was paleontologist Jason Head of the University of Cambridge. Head (who did not respond to our request for comment) cited this animal as evidence of the Paleocene's hot climate.

Climate scientists think the world was far warmer in the early Paleocene than it is today. Reptiles may have reaped the benefits; for the most part, snakes, lizards, turtles and crocodiles can't generate body heat like human beings do. Instead, they maintain their vital functions by absorbing warmth from the ambient temperature of their environments.


Back in '09, Head described the Titanoboa snake as a giant thermometer. He and his colleagues used its ample size to make an educated guess about the environment it lived in.

By their calculations, the very existence of such a huge, cold-blooded reptile indicates that Colombia must have had a mean annual temperature of 86 to 93 degrees Fahrenheit (30 to 34 degrees Celsius) when the snake reigned 58 million years ago.

But perhaps dead boids aren't the most reliable gauges.


Conflicting Temperature Estimates

Kale Sniderman is an Earth scientist at the University of Melbourne in Australia who studies prehistoric climates and ecosystems. He notes that the Pleistocene — an epoch that ended about 10,000 years ago and included Earth's most recent ice age — also had its share of big reptiles.

"Many now-extinct reptile species existed in the Pleistocene that were larger than their living relatives," Sniderman says via email. "Those extinct species," he adds, lived at a time when "climates pretty much everywhere were at least 1 to 3 degrees Celsius [or 1.8 to 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit] cooler than today."


Consider Varanus priscus, a Komodo dragon relative that patrolled Australia during the last ice age. At roughly 18 feet (5.5 meters) long, it was far bigger than the lizards we have today. Speaking of saurians, the biggest gecko of all time died out in its native New Zealand just a few hundred years ago.

"Neither occurred in warm climates, by global standards," Sniderman says.

It could be that giant reptiles don't need an oppressively hot planet to survive and thrive after all. Competition from mammals might be a bigger check on their success.

In any case, Titanoboa is long gone. So is Varanus priscus and that great New Zealand gecko. Yet their cousins remain, enriching our world with flashy scales, forked tongues and adhesive toe pads. This may be an "Age of Mammals," but there are some wonderful reptiles still among us.


A Sighting on Google Maps

In 2022, there was a viral incident involving what appeared to be a giant snake skeleton on the coast of France, as seen on Google Maps. A TikTok user highlighted this object in a video, suggesting that it could be a giant snake, possibly even a Titanoboa.

The object was said to be about 30 meters (98.4 feet) long, fueling speculation and intrigue. However, this claim was debunked.


The so-called giant snake skeleton was actually a large, metallic sculpture known as "Le Serpent d’Océan," a piece of contemporary artwork created by Chinese artist Huang Yong Ping. The sculpture is designed to appear with each tide, resembling an archaeological excavation, and its movement gives it a lifelike appearance.

Other Giant Reptiles

Now that we've whet your appetite for massive reptiles, check out some other creatures, both prehistoric and modern, that were the Titanoboa of their respective eras:

  1. Gigantophis: This extinct prehistoric snake lived around 40 million years ago during the Eocene epoch. It was one of the largest snakes of its time, reaching lengths of up to 33 feet (10 meters).
  2. Megalania (Varanus priscus): This gigantic, extinct monitor lizard lived in Australia during the Pleistocene. Megalania could grow up to 23 feet (7 meters) long and was one of the largest terrestrial lizard species known.
  3. Sarcosuchus imperator (SuperCroc): This massive crocodile lived about 112 million years ago. The SuperCroc could grow up to 40 feet (12.2 meters) in length and weighed up to 8 metric tons (8.8 U.S. tons).
  4. Deinosuchus: Similar in size to Sarcosuchus, this prehistoric crocodilian was known for its enormous size, with estimates suggesting a length of up to 36 feet (11 meters).
  5. Quetzalcoatlus: One of the largest flying animals of all time, this pterosaur had a wingspan estimated to be up to 40 feet (12.2 meters).
  6. Elasmosaurus: This long-necked marine reptile (plesiosaur) from the Late Cretaceous period was known for its extremely long neck and large size.
  7. Mosasaurus: This large, extinct marine reptile genus could grow up to 50 feet (15.2 meters) in length and were apex predators in their marine ecosystems.

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