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    Aquatic Reptile From 240 Million Years Ago Resembling the ‘Chinese Dragon’ Uncovered

    In the ‘Year of the Dragon’, a poetically perfect discovery has been made as the complete fossil of an aquatic creature that resembles the mythical ‘Chinese Dragon’ has been uncovered! The entire fossil of the Dinocephalosaurus orientalis dates back 240 million years to the Triassic period, and has been uncovered in southern China’s Guizhou Province. The 5-meter (16.4 feet) long reptile was first discovered in 2003, and the reptile would use its unbelievably long neck to ambush hapless prey in shallow waters.

    Studying the Resemblance: Science to Myth

    An international collaboration of scientists from China, the USA, and Europe, led by Dr. Stephan Spiekman, a paleontologist at the Stuttgart Natural History Museum, has conducted extensive research on newly discovered fossils belonging to the marine reptile. These findings mark the first comprehensive description of this remarkable creature, its long neck reminiscent of the mythical Chinese dragon.

    Their finds have been published in the journal Earth and Environmental Science Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, with these research results coinciding with the onset of the Chinese Year of the Dragon.

    Initially uncovered in 2003 within the Guanling Formation of Guizhou Province, the discovery comprised a skull and the first three cervical vertebrae of Dinocephalosaurus orientalis. Subsequent findings in southwest China, housed at the Institute for Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology in Beijing and the Zhejiang Museum of Natural History in Hangzhou, have provided additional specimens.

    Over the course of a decade-long study, scientists from Scotland, Germany, the United States, and China meticulously described and reconstructed nearly the entire skeletal structure of this marine reptile.

    “The discovery of the other fossils enables us to see this remarkable long-necked animal in its entirety for the first time. It is reminiscent of the long, snake-like, mythical Chinese dragons. We are sure that  Dinocephalosaurus orientalis because of its striking appearance will inspire imagination around the world,” said Dr. Nick Fraser of the National Museum of Scotland, one of the authors of the study, in a press release.

    Restoration of Dinocephalosaurus orientalis depicted among a shoal of the large, predatory actinopterygian fish, Saurichthys. (Artwork copyright Marlene Donnelly/Cambridge Core)

    Restoration of Dinocephalosaurus orientalis depicted among a shoal of the large, predatory actinopterygian fish, Saurichthys. (Artwork copyright Marlene Donnelly/Cambridge Core)

    Exceptionally Elongated Neck: Evolutionary Baggage?

    Dinocephalosaurus orientalis’ exceptionally elongated neck comprised of 32 distinct vertebrae, a feature that invites comparison to Tanystropheus hydroides, another peculiar marine reptile originating from the Middle Triassic period in both Europe and China. These two reptiles shared similarities in size and certain cranial features, notably a fish-trap dentition. However, due to its significantly greater number of vertebrae in both the neck and torso, lending it a distinctly serpentine appearance, D. orientalis stands apart.

    The evolutionary advantage conferred by these extraordinarily long necks is challenging to envision. One hypothesis posits that the extended neck, combined with the arrangement of the cervical ribs, could have enabled the creature to employ an unconventional suction feeding strategy. This theory suggests that the deflection of the cervical ribs might have played a crucial role in facilitating this feeding method, potentially differing from the functional context outlined previously.

    “I’m still baffled by the function of the long neck,” Fraser said. “The only thing that I can come up with is that they were feeding in the waters that had rocks, and perhaps crevices, in them. And they were using their long necks to probe and move into some of these crevices and maybe get prey that way.”

    Dinocephalosaurus Fossil (Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing). (Nicholas C. Fraser/Naturkundemuseum)

    Dinocephalosaurus Fossil (Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing). (Nicholas C. Fraser/Naturkundemuseum)

    Evidently well-suited to an aquatic existence, Dinocephalosaurus exhibited flippered limbs and contained preserved fish remains within its stomach region – four in total, along with small vertebrae and a possible limb bone. This suggests the presence of either an embryo or remnants of a small reptile consumed by the creature.

    Despite surface resemblances, it’s important to note that Dinocephalosaurus was not closely related to the renowned long-necked plesiosaurs, which emerged some 40 million years later and contributed to the legend of the Loch Ness Monster!

    “As paleontologists, we use modern-day analogs to understand life in the past. For Dinocephalosaurus and Tanystropheus, there is no modern-day analog,” Fraser concluded. “So we are still struggling quite a bit, as we do with a lot of animals in the Triassic, because it really is a weird and wonderful world of all sorts of bizarre animals doing things which animals today don’t seem to be doing.”

    Top image: Dinocephalosaurus fossil which is reminiscent of the mythical Chinese dragon.            Source: Nicholas C. Fraser/Naturkundemuseum

    By Sahir Pandey

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