Titanoboa Discovery: How Students Take A Part in Scienceby Kool Cat KC on 09/23/14
What was Titanoboa? Can you tell from the name? Yes. It was some sort of snake. And it was huge. It lived 58 million years ago, about 6 million years after dinos became extinct. But it was almost as long as the height of T Rex. The first fossil of this monster was found in Cerrejón, Columbia, in South America, in 2003. But when they first saw the fossil, scientists didn’t quite know what kind of snake it had been.
The place where the fossil was found had been a swampy jungle. Now, it was a coal mine. Mining equipment had scraped off the top layers of soil. In 1994, a geologist found a fossil and thought it was a piece of petrified wood. In 2003 a Colombian geology student found many more plant fossils at the same place, but when other researchers joined the search, a Smithsonian scientist recognized that the “petrified branch” was actually a jaw bone of a dyrosaur, a very large dinosaur. Along with it, they found a hip bone. Now they knew that at Cerrejón they might also find animal fossils. Once the team knew about the animal fossils, they called in Jonathan Block, a paleontologist at the University of Florida. Bloch, his students and other paleontologists, traveled to Cerrejón to collect fossils. And what they found were all gigantic.
They found turtle shells more than five feet wide. Animals like crocodiles, but much, much bigger. Skeletons of lungfish, which now measure two to three feet, measured seven feet long. Over the years, animals had died. The mud in the Cerrejón swamp had preserved the layers of fossils, one on top of the other. When the coal mine began to operate, mining machines removed layers and layers of soil. Rain washed other muck away and fossils were exposed. It was like Christmas! Scientists found so many fossils that they’d bundle them up in plastic bags and bring them back to the United States to study them.
Alex Hastings and Jason Bourque, students at the University of Florida, were looking in a bag which was labeled “crocodile” when Alex found a huge vertebra—the bones that make up the spine of an animal. But this was not a crocodile bone. They knew it was the vertebra of a snake. Later scientists from the University of Florida returned to Cerrejón, and found vertebrae from 28 different snakes. One hundred fossil vertebrae in all. Eventually, they even found a snake skull. Using math to compare the size of a modern snake’s vertebra to its full length, and then applying that to the size of the Cerrejón vertebrae, paleontologists determined that Titanoboa had been between 42 and 49 feet long. It weighed about 2500 pounds—more than a ton—the same weight of a small rhino, or a small car. The snakes were so huge that if a man were standing next to one which was slithering on the ground, the snake’s body would be as tall as his waist. It could barely squeeze through a doorway. Gigantic!
But what kind of snake was it? Bloch and another paleontologist, Jason Head, could tell that the snake belonged either to the family of boas or to the family of anacondas. They knew it belonged to one of those two families because the vertebrae they found formed a T-shaped spine. Both the boa family and the anaconda family have T-shaped spines. But the bones looked more like the bones of other boas. They decided that it was a boa. In 2009, they named it Titanoboa.
Have you noticed something special about this discovery? Students played a part in it. And not just the ones mentioned here. Other American and Colombian students helped search for fossils at Cerrejón and then e-mailed the pictures to Bloch. Can you put yourself in those kids’ shoes? They’re older than you, but think about it. Even in college they were taking part in scientific discoveries. Is that something you might want to do?
I found my information in an article by Guy Gugliotta in Smithsonian Magazine. The article was published in April of 2012. Jonathan Bloch was very kind in answering my questions. I also consulted the following websites:
I obtained permission to use the pictures.