Sunday, 18 September 2011

Ancient Crocodiles May Have Given The Largest Snake Ever A Run For Its Money

Acherontisuchus and Titanoboa in their natural habitat
Titanoboa cerrejonensis is the largest snake that has ever lived. This truly monstrous creature would have been 12 to 15 metres long (40 to 50 feet) with a diameter of 1 metre (3 foot) at its widest part and weighed in at 1135 kilograms, over a tonne. This beast would have been the top predator in its ecosystem, crushing its prey to death with very little effort due to its incredible size and power. It lived around 58 to 60 million years ago in the dense jungles and swamps of prehistoric South America.

Yet scientists now believe that that there were creatures that could have contended with such a snake; specifically a crocodile. The largest crocodilian that ever lived was a late Cretaceous creature called Deinosuchus. It was a similar length to Titanoboa at around 12 metres long. With a bite in the league of Tyrannosaurus, this creature was a dinosaur killer. It died out during the Cretaceous extinction, but a new discovery of a fossil crocodile suggests that this group of giant predators may have had one last hurrah before becoming smaller and less impressive.

Alex Hastings displays the remarkable fossils of Acherontisuchus gaujiraensis
Acherontisuchus guajiraensis was discovered in 2011 by a team of palaeontologists from the University of Florida by graduate student and lead author Alex Hastings. The creature's name is derived from the name of a mythological Greek river, the Acheron, which translates as river of woe. The interesting thing is that the single, 60 million year old fossil was discovered in the same rock formation as Titanoboa, the Cerrejon Mine in Northern Columbia. At 50 feet long, this creature could have contended with Titanoboa in the tropical rivers of its home.

'The younger individuals were definitely not safe from Titanoboa, but the biggest of these species would have been a bit much for the 42-foot snake to handle' said Alex Hastings. 'This one is related to a group that typically had these long snouts. It would have had a relatively similar diet to the other (coastal) species, but surprisingly it lived in a more freshwater environment.'

'We're facing some serious ecological changes now,' said Christopher Brochu, an expert on ancient crocodilians. 'A lot of them have to do with climate and if we want to understand how living things are going to respond to changes in climate, we need to understand how they responded in the past. This really is a wonderful group for that because they managed to survive some catastrophes, but they seemed not to survive others and their diversity does seem to change along with these ecological signals.'