Scientists Uncover Bones of Massive Extinct Snake, Comparable in Size to the 43-Foot Titanoboa

The 27 vertebrae discovered in India suggest the enormous creature, dubbed Vasuki indicus, was between 36 and 50 feet long

A diagram showing different snake vertebrae fossils
The vertebrae of the snake that the researchers dug up. Based on these bones, they estimate Vasuki indicus was between 36 and 50 feet long. Datta, D. and Bajpai, S., Scientific Reports 2024

Paleontologists in India have unearthed fossilized bones from one of the largest snakes ever discovered.

In a study, published last week in the journal Scientific Reports, the researchers suggest the now-extinct behemoth was between 36 and 50 feet long—meaning it couldn’t stretch to its full length inside a school bus.

The scientists named the snake Vasuki indicus after Vāsuki, a Hindu mythical serpent typically depicted draped around the neck of Shiva, a Hindu deity.

Vasuki is an important piece of an ancient puzzle. It contributes to our understanding of this extinct group and also to our understanding of large, apex, top-of-the-food chain snakes in general,” John Jacisin III, a paleontologist at the University of Texas at Austin who did not contribute to the findings, tells Popular Science’s Lauren Leffer.

The researchers dug up a partial vertebral column, composed of 27 vertebrae in total, from a mine in the Kutch District in Gujarat State on India’s western coast. The bones are around 47 million years old and were as large as 2.4 inches long and 4.3 inches wide—sizeable enough that, when they first uncovered the fossils, the researchers thought they had come from an extinct crocodile, reports New Scientist’s Tom Leslie.

Instead, they determined the bones belonged to a member of an extinct family of terrestrial snakes called Madtsoiidae that lived for around 100 million years between the Late Cretaceous and Late Pleistocene. In their day, these serpents slithered across what is now Madagascar, South America, India, Africa, Australia and Europe.

The researchers used two different methods for estimating the size of Vasuki, and both involved comparing its vertebrae to those of living snakes. One method found that Vasuki would have been between 36 and 40 feet long, while the other predicted a length of 48 to 50 feet.

Only one other snake known to have ever existed can compare in size to Vasuki: the extinct Titanoboa, thought to have been around 43 feet long. Titanoboa fossils date to between 58 and 60 million years ago. Today, the largest snake alive is the reticulated python, which frequently grows to more than 20 feet long, and one individual reached nearly 33 feet in length. Among snakes, Vasuki has the second-largest known vertebrae to Titanoboa.

“The estimated body length of Vasuki is comparable to that of Titanoboa, although the vertebrae of Titanoboa are slightly larger than those of Vasuki,” Sunil Bajpai, a co-author of the study and paleontologist at the Indian Institute of Technology Roorkee, tells Reuters’ Will Dunham. “However, at this point, we cannot say if Vasuki was more massive or slender compared to Titanoboa.”

The scientists acknowledge their estimates for Vasuki’s length might not be entirely accurate, since they don’t have a complete skeleton. And they based their estimates on Vasuki’s modern counterparts, which might not be perfect comparisons for the extinct species.

Vasuki belongs to an extinct family of snakes, distantly related to pythons and anacondas, and so when you’re using existing snakes to estimate body length, there may be uncertainties,” Debajit Datta, a co-author of the study and paleontologist also at the Indian Institute of Technology Roorkee, says to Live Science’s Jacklin Kwan.

“Caution is always warranted whenever you are extrapolating beyond the available data set,” Jacob McCartney, a paleontologist at Nazareth University who was not involved in the research, tells New Scientist. “But the vertebrae of this new species are so big that they really are second in size only to those of the Colombian species Titanoboa.”

The bones the researchers dug up suggest that Vasuki had a broad and cylindrical body with vertebrae that are similarly shaped to those of living pythons. These traits indicate the snake may have occupied a terrestrial or semi-aquatic habitat. Vasuki likely lived in a warm climate of around 82 degrees Fahrenheit.

Based on its large body size, the researchers theorize Vasuki was a slow-moving snake that traversed the land in straight lines. It might have been too large to have been an active forager and more likely ambushed and wrapped itself around prey to kill it, like living anacondas and large pythons, the authors write.

With further research—such as analyzing the fossils for elements that could reveal the snakes’ diet—the team hopes to get more information on the prehistoric giant.

“There are still many things we don’t know about Vasuki. We don’t know about its muscles, how it used them or what it ate,” Datta says to Live Science.

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