Home Science 240-million-year-old fossil of a “dragon” discovered in China

240-million-year-old fossil of a “dragon” discovered in China

He Dinocephalosaurus orientalis was a remarkable marine reptile from the Middle Triassic that was reconstructed in China from seven excellently preserved specimens

Dinocephalosaurus orientalis lived in what is now China during the Triassic period, about 240 million years ago. This aquatic reptile was up to 6 m long and had an exceptionally long neck with 32 individual vertebrae.

The animal was very similar to Tanystropheus hydroides, another strange marine reptile from the Middle Triassic of Europe and China. “Both reptiles were similar in size and shared several cranial features, including fish-trap-like teeth,” explained Dr. Nick Fraser, Curator of Natural Sciences at National Museums Scotland, and his colleagues.

The exact function of its exceptionally long neck is unclear.

“However, Dinocephalosaurus orientalis is unique in that it has many more vertebrae on both its neck and torso, giving the animal a much more snake-like appearance.”

Dinocephalosaurus orientalis

Restoration of Dinocephalosaurus orientalis, depicted amid a school of large predatory actinopterygian fish, Saurichthys. Photo credit: Marlene Donnelly.

Dinocephalosaurus orientalis was almost certainly a purely marine reptile and even gave birth to its young in the sea.

The exact function of its exceptionally long neck is unclear, but it almost certainly aided it in catching fish, which are preserved in the stomach contents of one of the specimens.

Despite superficial similarities, the reptile was not closely related to the famous long-necked plesiosaurs, which only evolved about 40 million years later and inspired the myth of the Loch Ness Monster.

“This discovery allows us to see this extraordinary long-necked animal in its entirety for the first time,” said Dr. Fraser. “It is another example of the weird and wonderful world of the Triassic that continues to puzzle paleontologists.” “We are sure it will capture everyone’s imagination due to its striking appearance, reminiscent of the long, winding mythical Chinese dragon will stimulate.”

Dinocephalosaurus orientalis was first described in 2003, but the discovery of additional, more complete specimens allowed the authors to fully describe the strange, long-necked creature for the first time.

“Among all the extraordinary finds we have made in the Triassic of Guizhou Province, Dinocephalosaurus orientalis is probably the most remarkable,” said Professor Li Chun, a paleontologist at the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology.

The results are published today in the Royal Society of Edinburgh’s journal Earth and Environmental Science: Transactions.


Dinocephalosaurus orientalis Li, 2003: a remarkable marine archosauromorph from the Middle Triassic of southwest China

Photo credit: National Museums Scotland.

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