STL Science Center

STL Science Center

15 March 2017

The Long Remains

Jonathon Bloch with Titanoboa and Anaconda vertebrae. ©Natural History Magazine
The finding of Titanoboa was significant for vertebrate, South American, and herpetological paleontology to name just a few areas and disciplines that benefited greatly from the discovery. Climate studies were another area that has been mentioned a great deal here in the last few days. To truly understand how large the snake is though requires a significant amount of knowledge of extant snakes and how their morphology relates to the size of their overall body. In order to estimate size and weight of extinct snake biologists need to know how the bones and bodies of living snakes are related and then apply the resulting ratios and formulae to the recovered extinct material. Vertebrae, such as those shown from Titanoboa and a 17 foot Anaconda, are often useful in estimating length and weight of fossil animals. Titanoboa was found with a significant number of these vertebrae, which can be rare for snakes. What made estimating the size of Titanoboa easier was not the number and completeness of vertebrae, bones of the spinal column that can make estimating length a bit easier, but the recovery of the skull of the snake. A snake's skull is rarely recovered in extant animal remains, let alone in fossil remains. The reason for this is that snakes are animals with extremely mobile heads. Their heads are capable of moving to extreme degrees and they do so by having very interesting connections between the bones of the skull that are not so much loose as they are workable and even supple. This often leads to the skulls of snakes simply falling apart as the flesh, muscles, ligaments, and tendons decompose and water, wind, and animals scurry about moving the bones. The skull alone is, therefore, a very intriguing find. That makes a very intriguing snake with a very rare skull and an immense body that has captivated millions; not a bad find in a Colombian coal mine.

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