One of the nice things about living in the UK is there are very few wild animals out there that will do you harm. But to be fair, this is largely the result of previous generations of Brits driving wild animals to extinction. The loss of wolves from Britain in the 17th century means that the most dangerous animals that we have left are (excluding other people) horses and cows, which kill about 15 people per year. Therefore, you would probably expect a story about a deadly snake terrorising the students and staff of a Scottish school to have been front-page news—particularly considering that the snake in question was a monster, far larger than any other found in the UK before.
Well, if the story does sound familiar, it won’t be because you saw it on the national news or read it any newspaper. If you did see the story, it was probably on the big screen; and if you did read about it, it was probably in the book that won British Book Awards Children’s Book of the Year in 1998. The story is “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets” by JK Rowling, and the school is therefore Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. For any one who doesn’t know the plot (WARNING: DELAYED SPOILER ALERT)—in his second year at Hogwarts, Harry Potter battles with a fearsome wizard-killing snake: a basilisk.
The basilisk is a monstrous serpent—fifty feet (over 15 m) in length with a dark green, scaly body that is “as thick as an oak trunk”. A bite from its venomous fangs can kill within minutes; and, as if that wasn’t bad enough, looking directly into its glowing yellow eyes is instantly fatal. This terrifying beast had lived in the Chamber of Secrets, deep below Hogwarts castle for centuries, only to be unleashed under the influence of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named to rein terror upon the magical school’s staff and students.
Although much larger than any living snake—the largest being the green anaconda which regular reaches up to 5 m in length and can weigh 70 kg—the basilisk’s immense size was matched by a prehistoric serpent. Titanoboa is the largest, longest and heaviest species of snake ever discovered. Fossilised backbones and skulls, unearthed in 2009, suggest that this serpent reached a maximum length of 12 to 15 m and could weigh in at about 1,135 kg.
The fossils of Titanoboa were not found under a castle in Scotland, but at one of the world’s largest coal mines in the northeast of Columbia. The fossils dated back to approximately 60–58 million years ago—a few million years after the fall of the dinosaurs. And when it was alive, Titanoboa inhabited a vast swampy jungle that was hotter and wetter than any modern-day South American rainforest.
Titanoboa was the lord of this prehistoric jungle-swamp and a fearsome predator, able to eat any animal that caught its eye. Unlike the fictional basilisk, this mega-snake did not use venomous fangs or a lethal stare to kill its prey. Instead, akin to the anaconda or boa constrictor of today, Titanoboa likely ambushed its prey: first grabbing it with its jaws, before wrapping its unparalleled length around the victim, and squeezing until it suffocated to death. Also like the heaviest snake of today: the green anaconda, Titanoboa probably spent most of its time in water, and likely moved faster when swimming than it could when slithering on dry land. Although it is unclear exactly what Titanoboa ate, its watery world was shared with other giant reptiles—turtles the size of kitchen tables and ancient relatives of crocodiles—that would have made easy prey for this monstrous serpent.
Although Titanoboa is extinct, and thankfully the petrifying basilisk of Harry Potter’s world is clearly fictional, it is possible that evolution could see to the return of gigantic snakes. Titanoboa’s immense proportions are thought to be the result of the hotter climate—as higher temperatures allow ‘cold-blooded’ reptiles to grow to larger sizes. As such, with climate change increasing global temperatures around the world—including in the tropics, given enough time, a ‘Titanoboa 2.0’ is a definite possibility.
Now, I like giant prehistoric snakes. And I like dinosaurs. But which is better?
There’s only one way to find out…
A GREAT WATCH | Titanoboa : Monster Snake (Full Episode) on the Smithsonian Channel via YouTube
*For those who don't know - this is a tribute to one of my favourite TV guilty pleasures.