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New find spotlights super-long-necked dinos

New find spotlights super-long-necked dinos

A new species of “extreme” dinosaur with a very long neck has turned up in China, shining a spotlight on the diversity of an unusual dinosaur lineage known as mamenchisaurids.

Qijianglong (pronounced “CHI-jyang-lon”) was about 15 meters (16 yards) long and its neck took up about half that length, according to researchers. The animal lived an estimated 160 million years ago in the Late Jurassic era.

The name means “dragon of Qijiang,” for its discovery near Qijiang City in China. (The “long” in the name comes from the Chinese word for dragon, not from “long” neck.)

Paleontologists from the University of Alberta in Canada have published a description of the skeleton in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.

Scientists digging the area, after construction workers originally identified the site, eventually hit a series of large neck vertebrae stretched out in the ground. Incredibly, they said, the head was still attached. “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,” said doctoral student Tetsuto Miyashita, one of the researchers.

Most long-necked dinosaurs, which form part of a group called sauropods, have necks only about one third the length of their bodies, but with mamenchisaurids the neck can get even longer.

Unique among mamenchisaurids, Qijianglong had hollow neck vertebrae, making their necks relatively light despite their immense size, the researchers added. Interlocking joints between the vertebrae also indicate a surprisingly stiff neck that was much more mobile bending vertically than sideways, similar to a construction crane.

“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,” said Miyashita.

Mamenchisaurids are only found in Asia, he added, but the discovery reveals that there could be as many differences among mamenchisaurids as there are between long-necked dinosaurs from different continents.

“Qijianglong shows that long-necked dinosaurs diversified in unique ways in Asia during Jurassic times-something very special was going on in that continent,” said 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.”

Miyashita believes that mamenchisaurids evolved into many different forms when other long-necked dinosaurs went extinct in Asia. “It is still a mystery why mamenchisaurids did not migrate to other continents,” he said. It's possible they were once isolated as a result of a large barrier such as a sea, and lost in competition with invading species when a land connection reappeared later.

The Qijianglong skeleton is now housed in a local museum in Qijiang. “China is home to the ancient myths of dragons,” said Miyashita, “I wonder if the ancient Chinese stumbled upon a skeleton of a long-necked dinosaur like Qijianglong and pictured that mythical creature.”

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