By now, you may be aware that something big, really big has come to the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. In fact, it's so enormous that it arrived in six separate crates, each weighing about 500 pounds.
I was lucky enough to be in the weeds as the Smithsonian Pennsy Facilities team, SITES project director Jennifer Bine, and our registrars, Cheryl Washer, Ruth Trevarrow, Viki Possoff, and Juana Shadid put this 48-foot thing together.
Even before the crew heaved Titanoboa out of those crates, I was quietly amazed by the texture and coloration of the serpent's scales--so supple that they seemed to glisten with rain forest moisture under the dim museum lights. Segment by segment, the snake became even more awe inspiring, both in its scale and its girth. Indeed, getting down on the ground with this baby, I imagined Titanoboa swallowing a medium-sized person without batting an eyelash . . . if snakes had eyelashes, or real eyelids for that matter.
Tracy Rollins, of the Smithsonian's Facilities crew, was poised to test my theory as he wrangled with the serpent, connecting two of its more recalcitrant parts. Inside of a massive set of coils, which in real life would have exerted some 400 pounds of pressure per square inch, Tracy looked like Titanoboa's first victim in 60 million years. That's when the snake really started to take shape, a mega predator slithering through the murky waters of a distant Paleocene world.
Titanoboa would have been at the top of the monster-eat-monster food chain, and it was easy to understand why when the team finally attached the monster's head, jaws agape, arched around a lifeless crocodile. Like modern constrictors, Titanoboa killed by squeezing its prey to death. Long, flexible tendons in the upper and lower jaws then allowed the snake to devour just about anything that was unlucky enough to get in its path, including massive snub-nosed crocodiles and turtles the size of billiard tables. You could almost hear the stomach acids churning as the snake's digestive system prepared to dissolve this croc's bones and tissues.
Head finally in position, she was born--a snake the length of a school bus, orginially conceived by Ontario-based model maker Kevin Hockley. There were some proud moments as the team stepped back to study the newest addition in the Smithsonian family. "Good gracious," I heard one staffer exclaim, "that's thing's a beast."
Titanoboa: Monster Snake is now on display at the National Museum of Natural History through January 2013. The exhibition will then travel to the Florida Museum of Natural History and the University of Nebraska State Museum, where the Titanoboa research teams continues to make discoveries. From there, there's no telling where the snake will end up--maybe in YOUR natural history museum.
For a complete view of the snake as it was being installed, see our Facebook gallery. Visit the exhibition website to find our about the upcoming tour schedule, see clips from the Smithsonian Channel film, and more.