They deduced from a group of seven vertebrae that the python had measured three and a half metres (11.5 feet). The complete snake is thought to have had at least 400 vertebrae. The researchers also found fossils of eight other snake species from the same period.
The snake was relatively small compared to giant reticulated pythons alive today in south-east Asia, which grow up to nine metres in length, and positively puny alongside the Titanoboa cerrejonensis, a 15-metre monster that slithered through the South American rainforests 60 million years ago.
But this is thought to be the longest snake that ever lived in central Europe. The fossil of the python, normally found in tropical regions of Africa and Asia, was found about 80 kilometres (50 miles) northwest of Munich by a team of German and Czech researchers.
"With the sudden fall in temperatures 14 million years ago, the destiny of this python was sealed," said Madeleine Böhme, of the Senckenberg Centre for Human Evolution and Palaeoecology at Tübingen University in southwestern Germany, who worked together with colleagues from Masaryk University in the Czech city of Brno.
Temperatures in southern Germany during the Miocene period, when the snake is thought to have lived, were roughly the same as Egypt today. “We‘re assuming that the average yearly temperature was about 19 degrees Celsius,” Böhme told the Südwest Presse newspaper on Tuesday. “Otherwise the snake would not have felt very comfortable here.”
The average temperature in a typical year in Bavaria is currently around 8 degrees. Temperatures dropped rapidly in Europe around 14 million years ago. No large reptile fossils have been found in central Europe after this period, and Böhme believes the giant python could only have survived so far north during a relatively short time window of about a million years.
A few weeks ago, researchers from the same research institute in Tübingen proved that the oldest great apes in Eurasia also lived in southwestern Germany. The scientists dated a fossilized ape tooth, discovered in the area in 1973, to 17 million years ago.