Palaeophis

Palaeophis typhaeus

Last updated: January 3, 2023
Verified by: AZ Animals Staff
© Nobu Tamura (http://spinops.blogspot.ca/) / Creative Commons – License / Original

This snake was as long as a school bus!

Palaeophis Scientific Classification

Kingdom
Animalia
Phylum
Chordata
Class
Reptilia
Order
Squamata
Family
Palaeophiidae
Genus
Palaeophis
Scientific Name
Palaeophis typhaeus

Read our Complete Guide to Classification of Animals.

Palaeophis Conservation Status

Palaeophis Locations

Palaeophis Locations

Palaeophis Facts

Prey
Fish and other marine animals
Fun Fact
This snake was as long as a school bus!
Most Distinctive Feature
40 feet long
Distinctive Feature
Bony plates on head
Temperament
Aggressive
Habitat
Sea
Diet
Carnivore

Palaeophis Physical Characteristics

Skin Type
Scales
Length
4-40 feet
Aggression
High

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View all of the Palaeophis images!



Quick Facts

  • Palaeophis was a large, aquatic snake that went extinct 23-33 million years ago.
  • Different species of Palaeophis ranged in size from 4-40 feet long.
  • They lived in shallow seas and coastal environments, feeding on fish and other marine life – possibly even whales!
  • They were similar to modern snakes but had some features that seem more primitive, such as bony plates on their heads and bodies.
  • Fossils of Palaeophis have been discovered in North America, Europe, and Africa.

Palaeophis Scientific name

The scientific name for Palaeophis is Palaeophis typhaeus. The genus name Palaeophis is derived from the Greek words “palaios,” which means “ancient,” and “ophis,” which means “serpent.” The species name “typhaeus” is also derived from Greek, and means “smoke-colored.” Palaeophis typhaeus was the first species of Palaeophis to be described and named.

Description & Size

Palaeophis is an extinct type of sea snake that lived during the Eocene Epoch, approximately 56-33.9 million years ago. It is known from fossilized remains that have been found in various locations around the world, including North America, Europe, and Africa. It was a large, aquatic snake that lived in shallow seas and coastal environments. Different species of Palaeophis ranged in length from 4 to 40 feet. The largest examples would have been as long as a school bus! They likely fed on fish and other marine animals, possibly including ancient whales.

Some of the species of Palaeophis that have been identified include:

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  • Palaeophis africanus
  • Palaeophis colberti
  • Palaeophis maghrebensis
  • Palaeophis africanus
  • Palaeophis colberti

Based on studies of the vertebrae of this species, scientists think it had a faster metabolism and growth rate than modern snakes. Palaeophis is thought to be closely related to modern pythons and boas.

Palaeophis Evolution and History

Palaeophis lived during the Eocene Epoch, which lasted from about 56-33.9 million years ago. During this time, the earth’s climate was much warmer than it is today. Many modern plant and animal groups emerged at that time. Scientists think that Palaeophis and other early snakes evolved from land-dwelling snakes or lizards that returned to the sea and adapted to the marine environment by losing their legs and developing a long, slim body well-adapted to swimming and hunting in water.

Palaeophis fossils are found in marine sedimentary rock layers, indicating their primary habitat. They show some characteristics of modern snakes, but others that seem more primitive, such as bony plates on their heads and bodies. Palaeophis went extinct between 23-33 million years ago for unknown reasons. Modern snakes that developed after this time have been very successful, now numbering over 3,000 species found in nearly every part of the globe.

Palaeophis toliapicus fossils
Palaeophis fossils are found in marine sedimentary rock layers, indicating their primary habitat.

©J. Dinkel / public domain – License

Diet – What Did Palaeophis Eat?

Researchers are not able to tell for certain from the fossil record what Palaeophis ate, but they make educated guesses based on what they know about the anatomy and behavior of other extinct and modern snakes, as well as fossils of the types of prey that were available in the Eocene Epoch. Scientists think Palaeophis was a generalist, opportunistic predator, feeding on a variety of prey including fish, marine mammals, and birds depending on what was available in its environment. It had a long, slender body that was well-suited for swimming and prey capture in water. It is likely that it used its sharp teeth and strong jaw muscles to grasp and hold onto its prey, and may have used constriction to subdue larger prey.

Palaeophis colossaeus vertebrae fossils.
Palaeophis colossaeus vertebrae fossils helped scientists extrapolate that these snakes could grow as long as 40 feet.

©Ghedo, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons – License

Habitat – When and Where It lived

Palaeophis lived between 56-33.9 million years ago during the Eocene Epoch. It lived in shallow seas and coastal environments in what is today Europe, North America, and Africa. It may have evolved from land snakes or lizards that returned to an aquatic habitat and adapted to it over millions of years.

Threats and Predators

It is not clear what predators may have hunted Palaeophis, as this information is not well-documented in the fossil record. It is possible that they may have been preyed upon by larger marine predators such as crocodilians or marine reptiles, as well as by other predatory snakes.

Discoveries and Fossils – Where It was Found

The first Palaeophis fossil was discovered in 1822 by the French paleontologist Georges Cuvier, who described and named the species Palaeophis typhaeus. He found it in France, and is now kept in the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris. Since then, a number of other Palaeophis fossils have been discovered in Europe, North America, and Africa.

One of the most significant fossil discoveries was a specimen of Palaeophis colossaeus that was found in 1999 in the Sahara Desert in Mali. From these fossils, scientists were able to extrapolate that these snakes could grow as long as 40 feet.

One of the most complete skeletons of a Palaeophis was discovered in Morocco in 2015. This species was Palaeophis maghrebensis, and it has provided important information that has helped scientists better understand this extinct species as well as the evolution and history of modern snakes.

Palaeophis maghrebianus skeleton
One of the most complete skeletons was discovered in Morocco in 2015 for the species Palaeophis maghrebensis.

©Hectonichus / CC BY-SA 3.0 – License

Extinction – When Did It Die Out?

It is not clear exactly when Palaeophis became extinct, as this information is not well-documented in the fossil record. It is likely that Palaeophis went extinct at some point during the Oligocene Epoch, which lasted from about 33.9 to 23 million years ago.

One possible explanation for the extinction of this species is that they were unable to compete with more advanced kinds of snakes that evolved during and after the Oligocene Epoch. Another possibility is that they were affected by environmental changes that they could not adapt to.

Similar Animals to the Palaeophis

  • Palaeophis colossaeus – This species grew up to 40 feet long and may have eaten primitive whales as a part of its diet.
  • Basilosaurus – This was a large, aquatic mammal that lived during the Eocene epoch. Basilosaurus was a primitive whale with a long, slender body that was well-suited for swimming and prey capture in water.
  • Titanoboa – an extinct genus of giant snakes who were more than 40 feet in length and up to 3 feet at its widest point.

View all 176 animals that start with P

About the Author

I'm a freelance writer and a lifelong animal lover. I've traveled the world, but the high point for me was riding an elephant in Nepal. Currently I'm an "Emotional Support Human" to 3 dogs, 1 cat, and 3 guinea pigs. My favorite wild animal is the quokka, the most selfie-friendly animal in the world.

Palaeophis FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) 

Was Palaeophis a carnivore, herbivore, or omnivore?

Palaeophis was a carnivore, feeding on fish and other marine life and possibly even primitive whales.

When was the Palaeophis alive?

Palaeophis lived during the Eocene Epoch, which lasted from 56-33.9 million years ago.

How big was the Palaeophis?

There were several different species of Palaeophis, ranging in length from 4-40 feet. The largest was as long as a school bus!

Thank you for reading! Have some feedback for us? Contact the AZ Animals editorial team.

Sources
  1. Wikipedia, Available here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Palaeophis
  2. Dinopedia, Available here: https://dinopedia.fandom.com/wiki/Palaeophis
  3. Mindat.org, Available here: https://www.mindat.org/taxon-4821372.html
  4. Science Direct, Available here: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0016699520300954

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