Long-necked 'dragon' dinosaur found in China: Why it didn't tip over

A bizarre dinosaur with an ungainly, long neck was unearthed in southern China

None of us like to stick our necks out, but this dinosaur had no choice.

This week, an international team of paleontologists described a newly discovered species of dinosaur that was probably 50 feet long — half body, half neck.

Scientists believe that the distance from the ground to its shoulder would have been 6 to 9 feet. 

The long-necked dinosaur lived 160 million years ago, during the Late Jurassic period. Its fossilized bones were discovered in southern China at a construction site near the city of Qijiang. The scientists named it Qijianglong guokr, which translates to "dragon of Qijiang."

Although that long neck looks cumbersome and vulnerable, scientists say, it did have evolutionary value.

"It's an efficient way of feeding to have a neck like that because you don't have to move around a lot," said Tetsuto Miyashita, a doctoral candidate in paleontology at the University of Alberta, Canada, who helped describe the dinosaur. "The problem is balance."

In the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, the researchers explain that Qijianglong solved the balance problem by making its lengthy neck as light as possible. Inside the fossilized neck bones they found air-filled spaces that kept the bones from being too dense.

"Birds have the same kind of thing," Miyashita said. "It really reduces the weight of the neck skeleton, so the neck was quite light."

The researchers did not collect a complete skeleton, but they did find most of the neck with a partial skull attached, a lot of the tail, part of the hip and a bit of the trunk. Because the bones around its brain had not yet fused together, they say, this specimen was probably a juvenile. 

"We don't know how big it might eventually grow," Miyashita said.

Because of the dinosaur's massive size, it probably had few predators. A fish fossil was found nearby, which suggests to researchers that there were rivers and lakes at the time. Qijianglong's long neck, suitable for nibbling leaves from the treetops, means it probably lived in a forest.

"I imagine its environment might have been like a conifer forest in Oregon," Miyashita said.

He added that dinosaur fossils have informed the culture of this region for centuries. For example, near where the Qijianglong fossil was found is a 14th century structure known as the Lotus Fortress.

"It was built on top of the Jurassic rocks, and inside the fortress there are dinosaur footprints," he said. "The people of the time thought they looked like lotuses, so there has been a long connection between dinosaurs and human culture." 

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