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Extremely Long-Necked Dinosaur Discovered in China

Jan 29, 2015 11:57 AM EST

Paleontologists in China have recently discovered a new species of an extremely long-necked dinosaur - spanning about half of its body length at times - earning it the nickname "dragon," a new study describes.

The skeleton of Qijianglong (meaning "dragon of Qijiang") was first found at a construction site in Qijiang City back in 2006. They never expected to stumble upon the remains of a prehistoric dinosaur, let alone ones so intact - remarkably, the large neck vertebrae were still attached to the head after so many years.

"It is rare to find a head and neck of a long-necked dinosaur together because the head is so small and easily detached after the animal dies," paleontologist Tetsuto Miyashita from the University of Alberta explained in a statement.

Qijianglong hails from the Late Jurassic period about 160 million years ago, stomping around and towering over lesser dinosaurs. The species belongs to a group of dinosaurs called mamenchisaurids, known for their extremely long necks that sometimes measure up to half the length of their bodies. Most sauropods, or long-necked dinosaurs, have necks only about one third the length of their bodies.

"Qijianglong is a cool animal. If you imagine a big animal that is half-neck, you can see that evolution can do quite extraordinary things." Miyashita said.

But what makes this gigantic dragon especially unique among mamenchisaurids is that it had neck vertebrae that were filled with air. So while you would think that carrying around such a long neck would make for a heavy load, Qijianglong's neck was actually surprisingly lightweight. Not to mention that their necks were composed of interlocking joints between vertebrae, which means that their stiff necks could bend and move vertically rather easily compared to sideways motion - a function researchers compare to a construction crane.

Not only does this new discovery bring to light the existence of a new, long-necked species, but it also reveals the incredible diversity that may have existed among mamenchisaurids in Asia.

"Qijianglong shows that long-necked dinosaurs diversified in unique ways in Asia during Jurassic times - something very special was going on in that continent," added Miyashita. "Nowhere else we can find dinosaurs with longer necks than those in China. The new dinosaur tells us that these extreme species thrived in isolation from the rest of the world."

The findings were published in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.

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