Last summer, my sister and I took a trip to French Creek to relax by the cool water. As we sat perched on the rocks at the edge of the water, I saw fear quickly creep into my sister's eyes. I soon realized this fear was induced by the sight of a snake head poking out of the water; its eyes staring right at us. We grew more terrified as we watched a man floating down the creek approaching the snake. "Sir, you might want to be careful; there is a snake in the water!" we cried nervously. "Ahhh no worries. There are no poisonous snakes in PA," he yelled back.
It turns out the man floating down the creek was wrong; there are actually three species of poisonous snakes in Pennsylvania: the northern copperhead, eastern massasauga rattlesnake, and timber rattlesnake. Fortunately none of these snakes dwell in water. However, if it were 58 million years ago (after the disappearance of dinosaurs) in northern Colombia, there would be much more to worry about than whether a snake is venomous or not.
While searching Cerrejon coal mine, intern, Jorge Moreno-Bernal, came across the skull of an enormous snake embedded in shale mudstone. The discovery of a snake skull in general is a great feat; intact skulls are rare to come across with their many delicate bones poorly fused together. This skull helped researchers, Jonathan Bloch and Jason Head, to uncover more information about the recently identified snake species, Titanoboa cerrejonensis.
The first glance at this snake species occurred when a researcher, sorting through a box of "crocodile" vertebrate fossils, came across one that was unique. Researchers compared the vertebrate fossil to that of a snake's. This fossil shared many characteristics specific to the class of snakes that includes boa constrictors and anacondas. The bones suggest the prehistoric snake was more like a boa, but the environment matches that of the water-dwelling anaconda that can live in swift-moving rivers and swamps.
Many of these snake vertebrate had been found previously and mistaken for crocodiles or dyrosaurs (ancient crocodile-like creatures), but were thought to be too big to belong to a snake. By analyzing the number and size of the vertebrate bones, researchers believe that Titanoboa was more than 40 feet long (as long as a school bus) and weighed more than a ton (as heavy as a small rhino). Also, the snake's thickest part is estimated to be as high as a man's waist. The discovery of the snake skull suggests that the mouth and head of the snake could have been more than two feet long. The skull also provided evidence that the teeth were more closely packed than modern-day boas, which would enable the snake to more easily prey on slippery fish. However, the mere size of Titanoboa would have placed it at the top of the food chain, capable of eating crocodiles and turtles whole.
If humans were living during the same time as these gigantic serpents, we would surely make a tasty snack as well. I for one am glad that the snakes lurking in the waters of French Creek are closer to 40 inches than 40 feet long (not to mention, my sister probably would have passed out at the sight of a Titanoboa).