A previously-unknown dinosaur dubbed the “amazing dragon of Lingwu” has been discovered in northwest China, potentially rewriting the evolutionary history of a group of dinosaurs.
Paleontologist Xing Xu and a team from the Chinese Academy of Sciences found a cluster of fossils belonging to the Diplodocoids according to a new study published in Nature Communications.
The Diplodocoids include famous long-neck species like Diplodocus and Apatosaurus.
The fossils, dating from about 174 million years ago, were found in the Ningxia region in northwest China.
The new find is 15 million years older than the earliest members of this family known until now.
Scientists say it changes the historical documentation of how sauropod dinosaurs evolved everywhere.
The early Diplodocoid has been named “Lingwulong shenqi”, meaning “amazing dragon of Lingwu” after the town near where it was found.
“Previously we thought that advanced sauropods arrived in the late Jurassic and quickly became dominant on this planet, but this suggests that these dinosaurs evolved earlier and spread slower,” saiMr Xu said.
In 2005, four excavations began at dinosaur sites in Ciyaopu, Lingwu and Ningxia Hui where fossil fragments of up to 10 partial skeletons (including portions of two skulls) ranging from juveniles to adult were discovered.
The new sauropod was based on the examination of these fossils, as Nature reported: “We name a new sauropod based on this material, and demonstrate that it is, to our knowledge, the earliest diplodocoid (and therefore also the earliest neosauropod) sauropod, and the first from East Asia”.
“This discovery has major implications for calibrating the timing of neosauropod diversification,” Nature reported, and provides the “first insight into a previously hidden aspect of their evolutionary history”.
The Diplodocoids were previously thought to have evolved after the breakup of the supercontinent Pangea, but the discovery of these fossils has forced a rethink.
Plant-eating gentle giants
These long-neck sauropods, who could stretch up to 36 metres from head to tail, were the largest animals to ever walk on land and dominated the planet’s “land ecosystems” for most of the dinosaur age.
According to National Geographic, the “amazing dragon” is “the first dinosaur of its kind ever found in Asia”.
Scientists concluded an inland sea had cut off eastern Asia and this so-called “mega-moat” prevented the diplodocoids from reaching this region.
“The discovery of our new animal … means that this isolation hypothesis has been somewhat watered down, or even placed in serious doubt,” according to University College London paleontologist Paul Upchurch.
“We propose that many of the groups that were supposedly absent in China might well have been present, but we simply do not see them there yet because of poor sampling in the fossil record rather than genuine absence,” he told National Geographic.