A composite skeleton showing fossil vertebrae representing the trunk region of the prehistoric snake Vasuki indicus, as seen in this illustration.—Reuters
A composite skeleton showing fossil vertebrae representing the trunk region of the prehistoric snake Vasuki indicus, as seen in this illustration.—Reuters

WASHINGTON: Fossil vertebrae unearthed in a lignite mine are the remains of one of the largest snakes that ever lived, a monster estimated at up to 49 feet (15 metres) in length — longer than a T. rex — that prowled the swamps of India around 47 million years ago.

Scientists said on Thursday they have recovered 27 vertebrae from the snake, including a few still in the same position as they would have been when the limbless reptile was alive. They said the snake, which they named Vasuki indicus, would have looked like a modern-day large python and would not have been venomous.

The mine is located in the Panandhro area of the Kutch district in western India’s state of Gujarat. Lignite is the lowest grade of coal.

“Considering its large size, Vasuki was a slow-moving ambush predator that would subdue its prey through constriction like anacondas and pythons. This snake lived in a marshy swamp near the coast at a time when global temperatures were higher than today,” said Debajit Datta, a postdoctoral researcher in paleontology at the Indian Institute of Technology Roorkee (IITR) and lead author of the study published in the journal Scientific Reports.

Because of the incomplete nature of the Vasuki remains, the researchers gave an estimated length range of 36-49 feet (11-15 metres) and a rough estimate of a metric ton in weight.

Vasuki, named after the snake king associated with the Hindu deity Shiva, rivals in size another huge prehistoric snake called Titanoboa, whose fossils were discovered in a coal mine in northern Colombia, as announced in 2009. Titanoboa, estimated at 42 feet (13 metres) long and 1.1 metric tons, lived 58-60 million years ago. The reticulated python is the longest extant snake, sometimes measuring 20-30 feet (6-9 metres).

“The estimated body length of Vasuki is comparable to that of Titanoboa, although the vertebrae of Titanoboa are slightly larger than those of Vasuki.

However, at this point, we cannot say if Vasuki was more massive or slender compared to Titanoboa,” said paleontologist and study co-author Sunil Bajpai, a professor at IITR.

These huge snakes lived during the Cenozoic era, which began after the dinosaur age ended 66 million years ago. Perhaps the largest-known Tyrannosaurus rex is a specimen named Sue at the Field Museum in Chicago, at 40-1/2 feet (12.3 metres) long, though a T. rex would have been more massive than these snakes.

Published in Dawn, April 19th, 2024

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