Monstrous Titanoboa goes on display in Fruita

Julia McHugh unveils a life-sized model of Titanoboa, the largest snake ever known to have existed, which will go on display at Dinosaur Journey in Fruita on Friday. McHugh is the curator of paleontology for the Museums of Western Colorado. The Titanoboa model at the museum is depicted eating a crocodile — an easy meal for the 48-foot-long, 2,500-pound reptile. The snake is modeled after a fossil found in a Colombian coal mine.



It sounds like something fabricated in a nightmare — a 48-foot-long snake that weighs 2,500 pounds.

But the titanoboa cerrejonensis isn’t a mythical creature. It slithered on Earth, dining on prehistoric crocodiles 60 million years ago, until its extinction.

The fossil of the giant snake, along with a new species of crocodile, was discovered in a Colombian coal mine in 2009.

“It’s got a lot of wow factor but it ties into our local history too,” said Julia McHugh, curator of paleontology, as she discussed the newest exhibit to open at Dinosaur Journey, “Titanoboa: Monster Snake” presented by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service. The exhibit opens to the public Friday.

McHugh said local paleontologist George Callison and his crew discovered the upper jaw fragment of a reptile in the Fruita Paleo Area in the 1970s. Callison suspected it was from a snake, but nobody agreed with him at the time, McHugh said.

The bone is currently part of the collection at California State University Long Beach. In recent years, it was confirmed to be that of a snake, one of the earliest discoveries of such fossils, McHugh said. 

A study published by international scientists in 2015 included Callison’s discovery in western Colorado and helped determine the origin of snakes dating back 70 million years ago.

“That’s the only one found in this area. It’s a fairly rare and early piece of history,” McHugh said.

Local ties were one of the reasons Dinosaur Journey chose to exhibit the full-scale model of the Titanoboa this summer, she said.

The traveling exhibition is on a 15-city tour across the U.S. Its only stop in Colorado is in Fruita. The 1,100-square-foot display includes the full-scale replica snake, a floor graphic and reflective water light, plus paleontological information about the enormous reptile’s discovery and reconstruction.

The museum will also show on daily intervals a 53-minute Smithsonian Channel documentary that follows the scientists who made the discovery within the Colombian mine and delves into what life may have been like for the giant snake.

“To bring something of so high quality and to have it fit into our space, it all came together in a great way,” McHugh said.

Museum members can get a sneak peek at the new display at 5:30 this evening. No RSVP is required.

As part of National Museums Month in May and sponsored by Alpine Bank, Dinosaur Journey will be free on Friday to all Mesa County residents.

The titanoboa will remain on display through Aug. 5. The display and movie are included in the regular admission price.

Dinosaur Journey is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Visit museumofwesternco.com.


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