Scientists unveil stunning 240-million-year-old ‘Chinese dragon’ fossil

April 3, 2024

Scientists have recently revealed the discovery of a peculiar marine reptile dating back 240 million years to the Triassic period. Named Dinocephalosaurus orientalis, this enigmatic creature dubbed the “Chinese dragon,” was unearthed in China’s Guizhou Province and has been meticulously studied by an international team of researchers.

Stunning 240 million-year-old 'Chinese dragon' fossil unveiled by scientists  | Live Science

A cropped photo of the Dinocephalosaurus orientalis fossil. Credit: National Museums Scotland

The unveiling of this ancient reptile was made possible through the examination of newly discovered fossils, allowing scientists to depict the creature in its entirety for the first time. One particularly well-preserved fossil provided a comprehensive view of the animal, stretching from its nose to its tail, resembling the figure of a Chinese dragon.

Remarkably, Dinocephalosaurus orientalis possessed an extraordinarily long neck, comprising 32 separate vertebrae, a feature unlike anything seen in modern animals. This elongated neck likely served a vital function, although researchers remain puzzled about its exact purpose. Dr. Nick Fraser, Keeper of Natural Sciences at National Museums Scotland, speculated that the creature may have used its neck to probe crevices in rocky waters for prey.

Despite superficial similarities to long-necked plesiosaurs, Dinocephalosaurus orientalis is not closely related to these creatures, which emerged much later. Instead, it shares similarities with Tanystropheus hydroides, another ancient marine reptile known for its elongated neck.

Scientists unveil stunning 240-million-year-old ‘Chinese dragon’ fossil

An artist’s rendition of the Dinocephalosaurus orientalis. Credit: Marlene Donelly

The reptile’s well-preserved flippered limbs and the presence of preserved fish in its stomach region indicate that it was well adapted to an oceanic lifestyle. However, its precise ecological niche and behavior remain subjects of ongoing research.

Dr. Stephan Spiekman, a postdoctoral researcher involved in the study, expressed hope that further research will elucidate the evolutionary trajectory of this group of animals and shed light on the function of their elongated necks.

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Professor Li Chun from the Institute of Vertebrate Palaeontology and Palaeoanthropology in Beijing, who initially discovered fragments of the reptile in 2003, emphasized the significance of this finding.

The study was published in the journal Earth and Environmental Science: Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.