Qijianglong, a dragon-like dinosaur discovered in China, featured a body 50 feet long with a massive neck resembling a modern crane.
The "Dragon of Qijiang" is estimated to be 160 million years old. The fossil was one of the rare finds where a skull was found still attached to its backbone. Most of the time, this fragile connection is broken before the specimen is found by paleontologists.
"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," Tetsuto Miyashita, a doctoral student at the University of Alberta, said.
Qijianglong is being classified as a variety of mamenchisaurid, a group of dinosaurs noted for necks that can stretch for half of the length of their bodies. By contrast, necks of sauropods such as apatosaurus and diplodocus, featured necks roughly one-third of their body lengths.
The remarkable neck of qijianglong was possible due to the vertebrae of the animals, which are filled with air, similar to those found in birds. Connections between bones in the neck suggest the ancient dinosaurs could move their necks vertically with greater ease than horizontal movements.
"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," Miyashita stated in a university press release.
Mamenchisaurids diversified to a great degree in Asia during the Jurassic Period, suggesting the animals may have evolved in isolation from the outside world. During that same time, many other long-necked dinosaurs went extinct on the continent.
Investigators are questioning why the animals did not migrate during that time. It is possible an ancient sea or other natural barrier may have temporarily cut the animals off from other regions of the world.
"China is home to the ancient myths of dragons. I wonder if the ancient Chinese stumbled upon a skeleton of a long-necked dinosaur like Qijianglong and pictured that mythical creature," Miyashita told the press.
Although the head, neck, and tail of the massive creature were discovered by paleontologists, no fossils of the legs or hands of the creature could be found. This helped the specimen resemble a traditional long-bodied dragon, such as the decorative pieces seen during Chinese New Year celebrations.
A new museum soon to open in Qijiang will become the permanent home of the new find. Until then, the Dragon of Qijiang is being shown at another local facility.
Discovery of the Qijianglong was profiled in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.