Titanoboa slithers into Morrill Hall

2014-02-21T09:05:00Z 2014-02-21T09:15:09Z Titanoboa slithers into Morrill HallBy ALGIS J. LAUKAITIS / Lincoln Journal Star JournalStar.com

Titanoboa, the world's biggest snake, lived near the equator about 60 million years ago.

Researchers identified the nearly 50-foot-long beast and named it about five years ago.

And for the past two years, a full-scale replica of the giant snake has been on tour, with stops in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Gainesville, Fla.

On Saturday, the "Titanoboa: Monster Snake" exhibit opens at Morrill Hall on the University of Nebraska-Lincoln campus.

The collaboration between the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service, Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, Florida Museum of Natural History and University of Nebraska State Museum is expected to be a hit.

"It will be very popular with families and with the students -- everyone likes a good scare," said Cheryl Washer, registrar and project director for the Smithsonian traveling exhibit service.

Jason Head, a paleontologist and curator at the University of Nebraska State Museum, said Titanoboa was bigger than any snake alive today, including its closest relatives, anacondas and boas.

The monster snake ate turtles the size of pool tables, crocodiles, fish and anything else that swam the ancient seas, but it didn't eat often. A good-size meal could last it almost a year.

Because of its weight, about 2,500 pounds, the snake seldom ventured onto land.

The fossilized remains of the giant snake were discovered in northeast Colombia in the Cerrejon mine, the world's largest open pit coal mine. The remains were mixed in with fossils of giant turtles, snub-nosed crocodiles and other large species.

Jonathan Bloch, a vertebrate paleontologist at the University of Florida Natural History Museum, and his team had been studying fossils excavated from the mine since 2004. In 2008, he contacted Head to say they'd found some that might be from a giant snake.

During a videoconference, Bloch held up a vertebra and Head couldn't believe his eyes. It was four times the size of any anaconda or boa.

He knew they'd found the world's largest giant snake. The previous record was held by Gigantophis, a 33-foot-long snake that roamed the Earth about 35 million years ago and was discovered in Egypt in 1901.

Head flew to Florida to examine the fossil with Bloch, then to Colombia in 2010 to help the team unearth and identify more fossils.

So far, they have not found a complete fossilized skeleton of the giant snake, but they've got bits and pieces, including part of a skull. They believe they have found 30 or 40 individual snakes, some of them 18-foot-long juveniles.

Bloch wanted to name the snake Tyranoboa, but Head thought that was a bit over the top.

"People get pretty impressed by it," said Head, who studies the evolution of reptiles.

On Thursday, Washer and state museum exhibit technicians Joel Nielsen and West Schoemer were assembling Titanoboa in Elephant Hall using socket and Allen wrenches.

Head hopes the full-scale replica of the giant snake is more than a big scare for some kids and their parents. He hopes it will also teach people about global warming and its potential consequences.

Titanoboa lived during the Paleocene Epoch, which was about 6.5 million years after the extinction of the dinosaurs. There was no ice on the planet, and temperatures were much warmer than today.

Studying the fossilized remains of creatures who lived during that time can help researchers understand how huge temperature changes at the equator can affect the planet's biosphere and atmosphere.

"It's a way of getting kids interested in science and making people aware of the relationship between organisms and climate," said Head.

Reach Algis J. Laukaitis at 402-473-7243 or alaukaitis@journalstar.com.

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