Scientists unveil 240-million-year-old reptile likened to 'Chinese dragon'

By Isaac M February 23, 2024

A 240-million-year-old marine reptile with an extraordinarily long neck – likened to a “Chinese dragon” – has been depicted in full for the first time.

The Dinocephalosaurus orientalis fossils were first discovered in Guizhou province in southern China in 2003.

After finding other, more complete specimens, scientists have now been able to present a full depiction of the creature.

The dinosaur, which lived during the Triassic period, had 32 separate neck vertebrae, and flippered limbs.

EMBARGOED TO 0001 FRIDAY FEBRUARY 23 Undated handout photo issued by National Museums Scotland of a Dinocephalosaurus orientalis. The long-necked 240-million-year-old marine reptile compared to a Chinese dragon has been depicted in full for the first time following new research. The Dinocephalosaurus orientalis fossils were discovered in Guizhou province, southern EMBARGOED TO 0001 FRIDAY FEBRUARY 23 Undated handout photo issued by National Museums SIssue date: Friday February 23, 2024.
The Dinocephalosaurus orientalis fossils were discovered in Guizhou province in southern China in 2003. Pic: National Museums Scotland/PA

A team of international researchers found well preserved fish in its stomach region, suggesting it was very well adapted to ocean life.

Nick Fraser, from National Museums Scotland, who was part of the international team that studied the fossil, said: “This discovery allows us to see this remarkable long-necked animal 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 palaeontologists.

“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.”

The long neck of Dinocephalosaurus orientalis has drawn comparison with the neck of Tanystropheus hydroides, another marine reptile from the Middle Triassic period of both Europe and China.

Both reptiles were of similar size and have several features of the skull in common, however Dinocephalosaurus has many more vertebrae both in the neck and in the torso, making it look much more like a snake.

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Researchers from Scotland, Germany, America and China took part in a 10-year study of Dinocephalosaurus orientalis at the Institute of Vertebrate Palaeontology and Palaeoanthropology, Beijing, part of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

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

Professor Li Chun from the institute said the international team “used newly discovered specimens housed at the Chinese Academy of Sciences to build on our existing knowledge of this animal”.

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

The paper describing the animal appears in Earth And Environmental Science: Transactions Of The Royal Society Of Edinburgh.


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