A fossil of a species of dinosaur with a neck stretching 25 feet long, nearly half its body length, has been found in China and dubbed Qijanglong, which means "dragon of Qijiang."
The size of the creature -- 45 feet long -- and its freakishly long neck set scientists to wondering about ancient dragon legends.
"China is home to the ancient myths of dragons," says Tetsuto Miyashita, one of the authors of a study appearing in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology. "I wonder if the ancient Chinese stumbled upon a skeleton of a long-necked dinosaur like Qijanglong and pictured that mythical creature."
The researchers, digging at a site near Qijiang City, said they were surprised to find the "dragon's" head still attached to its neck bones, something not often seen in fossils of the class of long-necked dinosaurs known as sauropods.
"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," Miyashita says.
The researchers discovered that the neck vertebrae of Qijianglong were hollow and would have been filled with air, making for a neck that was lightweight despite its size and length.
While most sauropods had necks making up about a third of their body lengths, Qijianglong belongs to a dinosaur group known as mamenchisaurus, characterized by extremely long necks, as long as half the body length.
Mamenchisaurids are only found in Asia, and may have evolved into many different forms when other long-necked dinosaurs went extinct there, he says.
"It is still a mystery why mamenchisaurids did not migrate to other continents," he says, suggesting they have once been isolated as a result of a large barrier such as a sea, then lost out in competition with invading species when a land connection was later restored.
"Nowhere else we can find dinosaurs with longer necks than those in China," he says. "The new dinosaur tells us that these extreme species thrived in isolation from the rest of the world."
Qijianglong lived around 160 million years ago in the Late Jurassic period, the researchers say.
In addition to the length of its neck, its vertebrae had interlocking vertebrae that would have made it surprisingly stiff, much better at bending up and down than from side to side, giving it an action something like a construction crane.
"Qijianglong is a cool animal," says Miyashita. "If you imagine a big animal that is half-neck, you can see that evolution can do quite extraordinary things."