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Colossal prehistoric snake discovered in India

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A giant prehistoric snake longer than a school bus slithered around what is now India 47 million years ago, according to new research.

The extinct snake may have been one of the largest to have ever lived, dwarfing present-day anacondas and pythons that can grow to about 6 meters (20 feet). The colossal creature’s scientific name is Vasuki indicus, after the mythical serpent around the neck of Hindu deity Lord Shiva and the country of its discovery.

The snake was likely a slow-moving, ambush predator that subdued its prey by constriction or squeezing them to death, according to the study, which appeared Thursday in the journal Scientific Reports.

Analysis of giant vertebrae fossils

The report’s two authors, based at the Indian Institute of Technology Roorkee in the state of Uttarakhand, analyzed 27 fossilized vertebrae — some still connected to one another — that were uncovered in 2005 at a coal mine in western India’s Gujarat state.

Initially, the team thought the bones belonged to an ancient crocodile-like creature. It wasn’t until the researchers removed sediment from the fossils during the study’s initial stage in 2023 that they realized they “were looking at the remains of an exceptionally large snake,” the authors said.

The vertebrae appeared to belong to a fully grown animal, the study said.

“There are a number of possible reasons for its large size which range from favourable environment with ample food resources to lack of natural predators,” coauthors Debajit Datta, a postdoctoral fellow, and Sunil Bajpai, a professor of paleontology, said in a joint email.

“Another driving force could be the prevalence of warmer climatic conditions than at present,” they said.

Based on the size of the preserved vertebrae, the researchers estimated that the snake would have been 10.9 meters (36 feet) to 15.2 meters (50 feet) in length, based on two different calculation methods, with a broad and cylindrical body.

Debajit and Bajpai said they believe it lived on land rather than water, like an anaconda, but it was unlikely to have hung out in trees due to its size.

The authors said that the body length estimates “should be treated with caution” because they didn’t have a complete skeleton. However, the snake would have rivaled the largest known snake species — the extinct Titanoboa — in size.

Identified from fossils in Colombia, Titanoboa would have weighed 1,140 kilograms (2,500 pounds) and measured 13 meters (42.7 feet) from nose to tail tip.

Snake size and the role of climate

Snakes are cold-blooded and need heat from the environment to survive. Their size, therefore, depends on how warm the climate is.

“Their internal body temperature fluctuates with the ambient temperature of the environment,” the authors said. “So, higher ambient temperatures would have increased the internal body temperature and metabolic rate of Vasuki which in turn would have allowed it to grow so large.”

The team was able to infer, based on information on the size and metabolism of living snakes and current temperatures, that Vasuki lived in a warm, tropical climate, with a mean annual temperature of 28 degrees Celsius (82 degrees Fahrenheit).

Datta and Bajpai said the snake lived in a coastal marsh and swamp.

“We cannot say precisely what sort of animals Vasuki ate,” they said. “Associated fossils collected from the rocks that yielded Vasuki include ray fish, bony fish (catfish), turtles, crocodilians and even primitive whales. Vasuki may have preyed upon some of these.”

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