Monster snake exhibit comes to life at the Florida Museum

Opening Saturday, the “Titanoboa: Monster Snake” exhibit features a full-size model of the 48-foot-long reptile at the Florida Museum of Natural History. (Courtesy of the Florida Museum of Natural History)

Published: Thursday, January 24, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 23, 2013 at 11:24 a.m.

Researchers didn’t quite know what to do with Titanoboa.


‘Titanoboa: Monster Snake’

What: Temporary exhibit telling the story of the giant Titanoboa snake discovered in a Colombian coal mine by a team led in part by Florida Museum Researchers.
When: Opens Saturday and runs through Aug. 11, hours are 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays, 1-5 p.m. Sundays
Where: Florida Museum of Natural History, 3215 Hull Road
Admission: Opening-day activities are free, admission to “Titanoboa: Monster Snake” exhibit are $6 for adults, $5 for Florida residents, seniors and college students, $4.50 for ages 3-17.
Info: 846-2000,

Opening day activities:
Saturday’s special events include the Alachua County Library Bookmobile featuring reptile books from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., and family activities including meeting representatives from the Florida Museum, UF departments and such area groups as the Florida Paleontological Society, Florida Fossil Hunters, UF Natural Area Teaching Lab and the Turtle Survival Alliance from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Other events include:
10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.: Screening of “Titanoboa: Monster Snake” with panel discussion by the team behind the discovery. A second screening runs from 3 to 4 p.m.
12:30 to 1:30 p.m.: “Discovering the Lost World of Titanoboa,” with Jonathan Bloch, Florida Museum associate curator of vertebrate paleontology
1 to 1:30 p.m.: “How big was Titanoboa, and why did it get so big?” with Jason Head, University of Nebraska-Lincoln
1:30 to 2 p.m.: “Dyrosaurid Crocodiles: The Other Giants of Cerrejon,” with Alex Hastings, Georgia Southern University
2 to 2:30 p.m.: “Cerrejon Plant Fossils and the Origin of Rainforests,” with Fabiany Herrera, Florida Museum graduate assistant

At first, they called it an ancient crocodile.

Hailing from the earliest Colombian rain forests, a team of researchers from the University of Florida unearthed Titanoboa, a 48-foot-long snake from the Paleocene era. After a brief stay in the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, the reptile has found a new resting place in the Florida Museum of Natural History. It opens to the public Saturday in the new exhibit, “Titanoboa: Monster Snake,” which will run through Aug. 11 at the museum.

Titanoboa came to life in 2007.

John Bloch, associate curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Florida Museum, went to Colombia in 2004. It was the first chance he had to get down to the excavation site after getting a call from a colleague in 2003.

Carlos Jamarillo, a paleobotanist from the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama, was digging up fossils to find clues into the formation of the South American rain forests, and kept finding bone fragments. He called Bloch and told him he needed to come.

The fossils, Bloch says, were the first ones found from the Paleocene era, about 60 million years ago. Following the extinction of the dinosaurs, the era gave birth to large amounts of reptilian life.

Bloch and others on the team went to the Guajira Peninsula, which juts off the coast of Colombia and Venezuela, and broke into the ground, peeling away each layer to see what they could find. At the coal mine, the site where Jamarillo had found the first fossils, Bloch found thousands of bones. Some were from turtles as large as an office desk. They found fish related to today’s tarpon.

In 2007, a large vertebrae was wrapped and sent to Bloch. The package had “large crocodile vertebrae” scribbled on it.

Bloch says he handed the vertebrae to his two graduate students working with him on the project, Alex Hastings and Jason Bourque. Hastings, who specialized in crocodile paleontology, knew he wasn’t looking at pieces of an ancient crocodile’s backbone.

Bloch says people tend to ask how someone could confuse a crocodile with a snake. “It’s almost like someone hands you the skull of a mouse,” he says, “and tells you it’s an elephant.”

Titanoboa, at 48 feet long and 2,500 pounds, dwarfs today’s anaconda, which measures 20 feet and weighs 330 pounds.

Bloch says the snake was so large due to a much warmer climate. Reptiles are temperature-dependent animals, and reptiles were much larger then to soak in the warmer temperatures to keep them moving.

As people become more concerned about climate change, Bloch says he gets the question of whether snakes could get large again. The answer: They could possibly get larger, but not as large as their ancestor.

When Titanoboa’s exhibit opens Saturday, visitors will have the chance to walk through a coal mine replicating the environment Bloch was in during the excavation period. A full-size model of the snake, alongside its real vertebrae, will be on display as well.

There also will be a laboratory where visitors can watch paleontologists work on further research details about the era and ask questions about the exhibit.

Darcie MacMahon, assistant director for exhibits at the museum, says live snakes also will be at the exhibit, slithering through cases. For those who get squeamish around the reptile, she says it might be a tough day to be at the museum.

“I hope this exhibit will be fun for all,” MacMahon says, “but I hope mostly that it will inspire younger people to engage in science.”

Bloch, who will be at Saturday’s opening, says he hopes people realize the link that the past has with the future.

“The fossil record represents a laboratory of brilliant, large-scale experiments that have been run essentially for free,” he says. “They help us to answer the questions that can’t be answered today in today’s environment alone.”

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