Carbonemys vs. Titanoboa - Who Wins?

of 01

Carbonemys vs. Titanoboa

carbonemys titanoboa
Left, Carbonemys (Lisa Bradford); right, Titanoboa (Nobu Tamura).

A mere five million years after the dinosaurs went extinct, South America teemed with a rich assortment of gigantic reptiles--including the recently discovered Carbonemys, a one-ton, meat-eating turtle equipped with a six-foot-long shell, and Titanoboa, a Paleocene snake that distributed its 2,000-pound weight along a length of some 50 or 60 feet. Carbonemys and Titanoboa occupied the same dank, hot, humid swamps along the coast of what is now modern-day Colombia; the question is, did they ever meet in one-on-one combat? (See more Dinosaur Death Duels.)

In the Near Corner - Carbonemys, the One-Ton Turtle

Just how big was Carbonemys, the "carbon turtle?" Well, adult specimens of the largest living testudine alive today, the Galapagos Tortoise, tip the scales at just under 1,000 pounds and measure about six feet from head to tail. Not only did Carbonemys weigh more than twice as much as its Galapagos cousin, but it was ten feet long, more than half of that length occupied by its enormous shell. (As ginormous as it was, though, Carbonemys wasn't the biggest turtle that ever lived; that honor belongs to later genera like Archelon and Protostega).

Advantages. As you might already have guessed, Carbonemys' biggest asset vis-a-vis a battle with Titanoboa was its capacious shell, which would have been completely indigestible even for a snake ten times Titanoboa's size. However, what really set Carbonemys apart from other giant prehistoric turtles was its football-sized head and powerful jaws, an indication that this testudine preyed on comparably sized Paleocene reptiles, possibly including snakes.

Disadvantages. Turtles, as a group, aren't exactly known for their blazing speed, and one can only imagine how slowly Carbonemys lumbered through its swampy terrain. When threatened by a fellow predator, Carbonemys wouldn't even have tried to run away, instead withdrawing into its Volkswagen-sized shell. Despite what you've seen in cartoons, though, a turtle's shell doesn't render it completely impregnable; a devious opponent can still poke its snout through a leg hole and do considerable damage.

In the Far Corner - Titanoboa, the 50-Foot-Long Snake

According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the longest snake alive today is a reticulated python named "Fluffy," which measures 24 feet from head to tail. Well, Fluffy would be a mere earthworm compared to Titanoboa, which measured at least 50 feet long and weighed northward of 2,000 pounds. Whereas Carbonemys occupied the middle of the pack as far as giant prehistoric turtles are concerned, to date, Titanoboa remains the biggest snake ever discovered; there's not even a close runner-up.

Advantages. Fifty feet makes a long, dangerous strand of predatory spaghetti for the other animals of Titanoboa's ecosystem to cope with; this, alone, gave Titanoboa a huge advantage over the relatively more compact Carbonemys. Assuming Titanoboa hunted like modern boas, it might have coiled itself around its prey and slowly squeezed it to death with its powerful muscles, but a quick biting attack was also a possibility. (Yes, Titanoboa was cold-blooded, and thus had limited reserves of energy at its disposal, but that would have been counteracted somewhat by the hot, humid climate).

Disadvantages. Even the biggest, fanciest nutcracker in the world can't crack an uncrackable nut. To date, there have been no studies of how the squeezing force wielded by Titanoboa's muscular coils would have measured up against the tensile strength of Carbonemys' thousand-gallon carapace. Essentially, Titanoboa had only this weapon, along with its lunging bite, at its disposal, and if both these strategies proved ineffective, this Paleocene snake may well have been defenseless against a sudden, well-aimed Carbonemys chomp.


Who would be the likely aggressor in a Carbonemys vs. Titanoboa showdown? Our guess is Carbonemys; after all, Titanoboa would have enough experience with giant turtles to know that they're nothing more than a recipe for indigestion. So here's the scenario: Carbonemys is hulking in a swamp, minding its own business, when it glimpses a green, shimmery shape skirting the water nearby. Thinking it's spotted a tasty baby crocodile, the giant turtle lunges and snaps its jaws, nipping Titanoboa about a dozen feet above its tail; annoyed, the giant snake circles around and glowers at its unwitting assailant. Either because it's very hungry or very stupid, Carbonemys snaps at Titanoboa again; provoked beyond reason, the giant snake wraps itself around its opponent's shell and begins squeezing.

And the Winner Is...

Hold on, this may take a while. Realizing what it's up against, Carbonemys withdraws its head and legs as far as it can into its shell; meanwhile, Titanoboa has managed to wrap itself around the giant turtle's carapace five times, and it's not done yet. The battle is now one of simple physics: how hard does Titanoboa have to squeeze before Carbonemys' shell cracks under the pressure? Minute after agonizing minute goes by; there are unnerving creaks and groans, but the stalemate continues. Finally depleted of energy, Titanoboa begins to uncoil itself, in the course of which it carelessly passes its neck too close to Carbonemys' front end. Still hungry, the giant turtle pokes out its head and seizes Titanoboa by the throat; the giant snake thrashes mightily, but splashes helplessly into the swamp, asphyxiated. Carbonemys drags the long, lifeless corpse to the opposite bank and settles down for a satisfying lunch.