Indian fossils may be from largest snake ever

New fossils suggest that one of the world’s largest ever snakes slithered around India 47 million years ago.

Vasuki indicus would have been between 11 and 15 metres according to a paper published in the journal Scientific Reports which describes the ancient creature for the first time.

The fossils were found in a brown coal mine in the western Indian state of Gujarat, about 670km northwest of Mumbai.

The ancient snake’s immense size rivals Titanoboa, the largest snake of all time, which lived about 60 million years ago, just after the demise of the dinosaurs. Titanoboa, described for the first time in 2009, is believed to have reached lengths of about 14 metres, and weighed more than a tonne.

Today, the longest snake is the reticulated python. These serpents live not far from the old slithering grounds of V. indicus in south and southeast Asia. Large pythons have been measured at nearly 7 metres.

Green anacondas, native to South America, can also approach 7 metres and weigh more than 200 kg.

Compared to Vasuki and Titanoboa, modern snakes are minnows.

Vasuki indicus is known from 27 vertebrae. Their structure points to them having come from a fully-grown animal.

The vertebrae measure between 37.5 mm and 62.7 mm long, and 62.4–111.4 mm in width. The palaeontologists were able to extrapolate from this, using known snake anatomy, an estimate of the ancient beast’s overall size.

The authors of the research – Debajit Datta and Sunil Bajpai, both palaeontologists from the Indian Institute of Technology Roorkee – rule out either an aquatic or tree-based lifestyle for Vasuki.

Vasuki is envisaged as a slow-moving snake,” the authors write. They say that “it was perhaps too large to be an active forager and was more likely an ambush predator that would subdue its prey through constriction, similar to modern anacondas and large-bodied pythonids.”

The giant snake lived during the Eocene period (56–34 million years ago). At this time, global average temperatures were more than 6–10°C higher than today. It was much wetter and new forms of forest were emerging, including large rainforests which covered swathes of Asia, Africa and Europe.

V. indicus is identified as belonging to a group of snakes called madtsoiidae which existed for about 100 million years from the end of the “Age of Dinosaurs” in the Late Cretaceous.

Madtsoiidae lived in what is today Madagascar, South America, India, Africa and Europe.

The discovery of V. indicus, the authors write, suggests large snakes of this group possibly evolved due to high temperatures in the middle of the Eocene, before spreading into Asia and North Africa when the Indian continental plate collided with the Asian plate about 50 million years ago – a merging which also saw the rise of the Himalayas.

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