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Scientists unveil 240-million-year-old dragon-like reptile

February 23, 2024

The fossils of the reptile called Dinocephalosaurus orientalis were originally identified in 2003. The discovery of more complete specimens since then has allowed scientists to fully describe the creature.

An artist impression of a Dinocephalosaurus orientalis swimming alongside some prehistoric fish known as Saurichthy
Dinocephalosaurus orientalis was a dragon-like marine reptile that preyed on fishImage: National Museums Scotland/PA Media/dpa/picture alliance

A 240-million-year-old long-necked marine reptile that resembles a Chinese dragon has been fully depicted for the first time, according to new research, published on Friday by Earth and Environmental Science Transactions of The Royal Society of Edinburgh.

The fossils of Dinocephalosaurus orientalis were discovered in Guizhou province in southern China. The reptile was originally identified in 2003, but the discovery of additional, more complete specimens since then allowed an international team of scientists to fully describe the creature.

With 32 separate cervical vertebrae, it had an extraordinarily long neck and its flippered limbs, as well as the well-preserved fish in its stomach region indicate that it was very well adapted to an oceanic lifestyle, researchers said.

Why is this discovery important?

According to Nick Fraser, keeper of natural sciences at National Museums Scotland: "The discovery allows us to see this remarkable long-necked marine reptile in full for the very first time. It is yet one more example of the weird and wonderful world of the Triassic that continues to baffle paleontologists.

"We are certain that it will capture imaginations across the globe due to its striking appearance, reminiscent of the long and snake-like mythical Chinese dragon," Fraser told the dpa news agency.

Despite superficial similarities, Dinocephalosaurus was not closely related to the famous long-necked plesiosaurs, which evolved some 40 million years later and are thought to have been the inspiration for the Loch Ness monster.

The long-necked 240-million-year-old marine reptile has been depicted in full for the first time following new research
The Dinocephalosaurus orientalis fossils were discovered in Guizhou province, southern ChinaImage: National Museums Scotland/PA Media/dpa/picture alliance

International efforts paying off

Researchers from Scotland, Germany, America and China spent 10 years studying Dinocephalosaurus orientalis at the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology in Beijing, part of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

"This was an international effort. Working with colleagues from the United States, the United Kingdom and Europe, we used newly discovered specimens housed at the Chinese Academy of Sciences to build on our existing knowledge of this animal," Professor Li Chun of the institute said.

"Among all of the extraordinary finds we have made in the Triassic of Guizhou province, Dinocephalosaurus probably stands out as the most remarkable," he added.

This report was written in part with material from news agency dpa.

Edited by: Sean M. Sinico

Dmytro Hubenko Dmytro covers stories in DW's newsroom from around the world with a particular focus on Ukraine.