Giants in the Earth

Madtsoia


In this conclusion to a three-part series, guest writer and artist Hodari Nundu looks at the biggest snakes in the history of the planet. 

Even though pythons and boas may have grown larger a few decades ago, even the largest dragons of our days would look like garter snakes compared to some of the monstrous snakes that lived millions of years ago. 

Scientists believe that snakes appeared around 120 million years ago, in the Cretaceous period- the golden age of dinosaurs. Although it is tempting to imagine gigantic snakes coexisting with dinosaurs and giant crocodiles, the truth is that evidence for such creatures is scarce. In fact, to my knowledge, the only giant snake known from the Cretaceous is a species of Madtsoia whose remains were found in Madagascar. 

Madtsoia was a constrictor, like pythons or boas, but it wasn´t closely related to them. Instead, it belonged to its own family, Madtsoiidae, which was seemingly well represented and widely distributed during the late Cretaceous and even survived the mass extinction at the end of said period. Madtsoiids probably looked a lot like pythons, but they were different in several ways, the most important being that their jaws couldn´t unhinge the same way a python’s jaws do. In other words, madtsoiids, even the larger ones, couldn´t swallow prey as huge, relative to their own size, as modern day constrictors. 


Madtsoia tackles Majungasaurus, a 20-foot cannibal of the Cretaceous

Unfortunately for those of us who like to imagine epic prehistoric duels, this means that there were probably no dinosaur-eating snakes, or at least, no giant-dinosaur eaters. Madtsoia madagascariensis is known only from fragmentary fossils, but scientists believe the original specimen was at least 5 meters long- pretty respectable for any snake, and there are vertebrae from other specimens suggesting an even larger potential size for the species- maybe up to 8 meters long. At such size, Madtsoia would probably be able to constrict many large dinosaurs to death, but if it was, as scientists say, unable to swallow large prey, then this seems unlikely to have happened often. Smaller dinosaurs were another story, of course, and there’s some evidence in the fossil record that madtsoiids may have fed on dinosaur eggs and hatchlings; in India, the remains of a 3.5 meter long relative to Madtsoia, named Sanajeh, were found along with the nest of a long necked dinosaur; the snake had seemingly been waiting on the nest for the little dinosaurs to hatch, ready to dine on them.

Madtsoia takes Masiakasaurus, a six-feet flesh-eating dinosaur

The madtsoiid lineage lasted until very recently, geologically speaking; the last member of the family, called Wonambi, stalked the waterholes in the Australian desert until 50,000 years ago, meaning this six meter giant was encountered (and quite possibly, eventually exterminated) by the ancestors of modern day Australian aborigines. Some scientists say that Wonambi itself may have preyed on human children once in a while, partially explaining why even today, aborigines instruct children to keep away from waterholes-- no matter how shallow -- unless accompanied by an adult. Any smallish animal that came close to the water would’ve been fair game for Wonambi. 

But the fossil record has evidence of serpents much bigger than these.

In 1901, the remains of a gigantic snake were found in Egypt. Dating back to 40 million years ago, Gigantophis, as it was named, was the largest snake known to science for a long time. Originally considered to be a “boid,” related to boas and pythons (today pythons are classified as a separate family), Gigantophis is now known to have been a madtsoiid, just like Wonambi. It was, however, much bigger; even though its remains are fragmentary, they suggest a length of at least 10 meters. 

This makes Gigantophis as big as the biggest reported reticulated pythons, and certainly much bigger than any confirmed giant python in modern times. What this giant snake ate is still a mystery. The remains of primitive, pig-sized elephants and other creatures have been found in the same fossil sites, but if Gigantophis was unable to unhinge its jaws like a python, these creatures may have been too much to handle. It is possible that it was a fish eater, though; back then, the region of Egypt where it lived was not a desert, but a coastal swamp. It is possible that Gigantophis spent a lot of time in the water, like modern day anacondas. Alternatively, it may have preyed on water birds or perhaps on other, smaller reptiles. At about the same time, the sea was home to other giant serpents. 


Paleophis vs. Otodus, an ancient shark related to the great white

One of them, Palaeophis, could grow up to 9 meters long, and was probably a denizen of estuaries and coastal waters. A close relative of it, Pterosphenus, was even better adapted to a marine lifestyle, with a laterally flattened tail just like modern day sea snakes. But unlike our venomous sea snakes, related to cobras and kraits, Pterosphenus was probably a non-venomous fish eater, measuring up to 7 meters long-- over three times larger than the largest modern day sea snakes. Unfortunately, there’s no way to know if this giant could obtain part of its oxygen directly from the water, like some modern day sea snakes do.

Neither Palaeophis nor Pterosphenus could slither on land; they were completely transformed into aquatic animals. They were, as we would say in my country, sea serpents with all their letters. 



Liasis dubudingala


All around the world, the fossilized remains of other giant snakes have been found. One of the most interesting is now known as Liasis dubudingala, and was found in Australia. But unlike Wonambi, which coexisted with human beings, L.dubudingala lived 4.5 million years ago, long before humans reached Australia, or even before they evolved at all. This snake still has living relatives today; one of them, the olive python or Liasis olivaceus, is Australia’s second largest snake, measuring up to 4 meters long. But even this respectable snake was dwarfed by its prehistoric relative, which was just as long as Gigantophis- 10 meters long. 

Unlike the heavy, probably aquatic Gigantophis, however, Liasis dubudingala was seemingly a tree dweller; some of its skeletal features are highly reminiscent of those of modern day tree snakes. It is possible that this giant tree python relied on camouflage to hide in the canopy, waiting in ambush for some unfortunate bird or arboreal marsupial to come close to its deadly coils; indeed, the word dubudingala means “strangling ghost.” I am always tempted to imagine it as being bright green, like tree pythons or emerald boas; there is, of course, no way to be sure about this. 


Titanoboa takes a Coryphodont, a primitive mammal

Unfortunately, Australia’s awesome giant tree python was overshadowed by a 2009 discovery; in a coal mine in Colombia, the remains of a snake even bigger than either Gigantophis or Liasis dubudingala were found, and quickly became headlines around the world. Compared to the equivalent bones in a modern day anaconda, those of the Colombian snake were humongous; scientists estimated that, when alive-- 60 million years ago-- this snake was probably between 13 and 15 meters long, being, they said, “the largest snake ever to have existed.” They named the creature Titanoboa, for it was not a python, nor a madtsoiid, but a member of the Boidae family, the same family that includes modern day boa constrictors and anacondas. The implications of this can send shivers down one’s spine; this was a giant snake that could unhinge its jaws and swallow enormous animals. The coal mine even provided a glimpse to the possible menu of Titanoboa; enormous freshwater turtles and crocodiles, suggesting that Titanoboa was probably a water based animal. 

It makes sense if we consider the snake’s incredible weight; up to 1,135 kg. The heaviest snake of our times, the South American green anaconda, weighs only a small fraction of this, and yet it’s so massive that its movements are slow and clumsy on dry land. It is in the water where the anaconda becomes quick and deadly, taking its victims by surprise. Titanoboa may have been the same. 

If we had a time machine and could bring an adult Titanoboa to the modern world, it would be seen as a monster of almost absurd proportions. Scientists themselves have said some pretty fantastic things about it. They have described it as the T-Rex of snakes, and have actually labeled it a worthy foe in a hypothetical fight between these two giant reptiles. They have suggested that it would have trouble to go through a normal sized office door, because of its titanic girth. And a reptile curator from the Smithsonian Institute said that if Titanoboa was alive and kept in captivity, it would probably have to be fed on cows. I myself remember my days as a zookeeper and, considering the strength of modern day pythons and boas, and their proclivity to escape from their terrariums, I think keeping a Titanoboa in captivity would be a catastrophe just waiting to happen. There’s no way any number of keepers could hold a Titanoboa still like we did with Aphrodite. It would simply be too powerful. 

***

Perhaps the most frightening and awesome part of the story is that, although pretty much every source today describes Titanoboa as the largest snake of all times, the truth is that we know too little about the fossil record to make such claims. 

There may very well be larger monsters out there, fossilized in the rocks, waiting to be discovered. What’s more, we may already have found some of them. Some post-Cretaceous species of Madtsoia have been described as being perhaps as long as Titanoboa, and in 1993, there were rumors that the fossils of a colossal snake had been found in Argentina, surpassing Gigantophis (back then considered the largest snake of all times) and Madtsoia in size. According to at least two paleontologists, this snake, known as Chubutophis grandis, may have reached a mind blowing length of 15 to 20 meters long! There is even one mention of a 29 meter long fossil snake also from Argentina (and potentially the same as Chubutophis), but some paleontologists believe this estimate was due to a typo, and that the author probably meant 20 meters. 

Still, it is hard to imagine the size and might of such a beast, and even harder to imagine what it would feed on. To most of us, such a monster would make more sense in the Age of Dinosaurs, when the size of potential prey was more fitting for such a monstrous predator. But as I say, we only know part of the story.

Both living and extinct, dragons remain mysterious; there’s still a lot to learn about them. They may not fly or breathe fire, or guard treasure; but the point is, they are real. We just gave them a new name, and kept the old one for the legend. 


MORE BY HODARI NUNDU

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