National Geographic News
Bone fragments from a newly discovered ancient crocodile relative are pictured.
Clockwise from left: skull; partial skull; bony, skin-covering plate; lower jaw; and vertebra of the new prehistoric croc species.

Photograph courtesy Jeff Gage, University of Florida

Christine Dell'Amore

National Geographic News

Published February 5, 2010

A new species of prehistoric croc has been unearthed in Colombia—and the ancient reptile was likely prey for the largest known snake ever to have slithered the Earth, a new study says.

But if you're hoping for a prehistoric clash of the titans, you're out of luck: The 7-foot-long (2.1-meter-long) crocodile relative—called Cerrejonisuchus improcerus—wouldn't have stood a fighting chance against the 45-foot-long (13.7-meter-long) Titanoboa cerrejonesis, researchers say. (See pictures of Titanoboa, the biggest snake in history.)

There would have been "no competition whatsoever," said study leader Alex Hastings, a University of Florida graduate student in vertebrate paleontology who works with the school's the Florida Museum of Natural History.

"Even the smallest Titanoboa ... would have no problem downing even the largest of the new crocodilyforms we found." Crocodilyforms are reptiles that belong to the order Crocodilia, which includes, crocodiles, alligators, caimans (picture), and gavials, among other species.

Fossils of the snake and the newfound crocodile relative were found next to each other between 2004 and 2007 in an open-pit coal mine in northeastern Colombia—a "remarkable" fossil site, Hastings said.

Both reptiles lived in South America 60 million years ago, when the local environment was on the cusp of transitioning into the continent's well-known modern rain forests.

The fossil site is "one of the first glimpses of the beginning of the ecosystem that we have today," Hastings said.

(Related: "World's Biggest Snake Lived in First 'Modern' Rain Forest.")

Titanoboa's Big Squeeze

In addition to finding the creatures side by side, the case for snake vs. crocodyliform battles is strengthened by the behavior of the animals' modern descendants, according to the study, published January 28 in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.

For instance, modern anacondas in the Amazon—including the current titleholder for world's biggest snake, the green anaconda—often eat living members of the croc family, such as caimans.

Like these snakes, Titanoboa probably waited by the water's edge to catch C. improcerus off guard before squeezing the "little guy" to death, Hastings said. "It was not a good end for the poor crocodyliform."

(See a related picture: "Python Bursts After Eating Gator.")

When it managed to avoid Titanoboa's grasp, C. improcerus likely munched on tiny snakes, frogs, lizards, and mammals. The crocodile relative was the smallest of its family, the dyrosaurids, and had an unusually short snout, seemingly adapted to nabbing critters that would have been ignored by bigger crocodyliforms.

As for Titanoboa—the largest land animal during that time—the research gives another hint at the massive snake's power, Hastings added.

"It's fleshing out that story of what [these] reptiles were capable of."

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