A fossil unearthed in China comes from a never-before-seen sauropod species, according to a new study published in Nature Communications. The long-necked animals are some of the most iconic dinosaurs. While there are many on record, the new species — known as Lingwulong sharqi — is truly unique.
A team of international researchers pieced the remains together using seven to 10 partial skeletons from four separate dig sites across China. That revealed Lingwulong belonged to the diplodocid family. It was a dicraeosaurid — a small group of sauropod dinosaurs that had slightly shorter necks and a series of sharp spines sticking out from their vertebrae.
The remains analyzed in the research date back 174 million years. That date is significant because it means Lingwulong is the earliest known neosauropod on record. That then challenges the common belief about when many different dinosaur species evolved.
Previously, scientists believed that neosauropods lived during the Late Jurassic period between 163 million and 145 million years ago. However, the new finding changes those dates and shows the species likely existed during the Middle Jurassic.
“The discovery of Lingwulong pushes back the origination times of many of the groups of sauropod dinosaurs that we think of as most iconic, and challenges many conventional ideas about the early biogeographical history of dinosaurs,” study co-author Philip Mannion, a paleontologist at Imperial College London, told Gizmodo.
Though the jury is still out on whether or not Lingwulong is a diplodocid, if confirmed it would be the first one found in East Asia. That location is what gives it its odd name, which roughly translates to “amazing dragon of Lingwu.”
It is not easy to determine what a dinosaur looked or acted like from the fossil, but the team believes Lingwulong would have been similar to other sauropods. It likely measured between 35 and 55 feet long, traveled in small herds, and spent most of its time eating. The species also probably adapted quite quickly throughout its evolution.
“This allowed them to dominate and prevail in almost any terrestrial ecosystem for millions of years,” said Cecilia Apaldetti, a researcher at CONICET-Universidad Nacional de San Juan in Argentina who was not involved in the study, according to BBC News. “This ‘anatomical versatility’ was probably one of the evolutionary keys that led them to be one of the most successful vertebrates in the history of life on earth.”