"Long before it's in the papers"
January 29, 2015

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New find spotlights super-long-necked dinos

Jan. 29, 2015
Courtesy of the University of Alberta
and World Science staff

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. 

An illustration shows what the newly discovered long-necked dinosaur may have looked like. (Credit: Xing Lida)


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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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.) University of Alberta paleontologists 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 is possible that the dinosaurs were once isolated as a result of a large barrier such as a sea, and lost in competition with invading species when the land connection was restored 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.”