An artist’s interpretation of what Lingwulong shenqi may have looked like.
Illustration: Zhang Zongda

The gigantic, long-necked sauropods are an iconic group of dinosaurs—and it seems scientists have just discovered a new one. Paleontologists were able to define the new species, known as Lingwulong shenqi, using seven to 10 partial skeletons from four separate dig sites in China.

Lingwulong belonged to the diplodocid family, the researchers write in their paper published Tuesday in Nature Communications. Specifically, it seems to be a dicraeosaurid, a small clade of sauropod dinosaurs with slightly shorter necks and a series of sharp spines protruding from their vertebrae.

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The new fossils date back to 174 million years ago, making Lingwulong the earliest known neosauropod (a big group of dinosaurs that includes the titanosaur, diplodocus, brachiosaurus, and others). The existence of a neosauropod like Lingwulong way back before Pangaea fully split apart challenges existing theories of when and how many dinosaur species evolved.

Research has previously shown that neosauropods thrived from between 163 million and 145 million years ago, in the Late Jurassic period. But Lingwulong fossils date back to 174 million years ago, suggesting neosauropods were roaming Pangea much earlier, in 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,” Philip Mannion, a study author and paleontologist at Imperial College London, told Gizmodo.

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Lingwulong fossils are shown partially exposed here in one of the four Chinese dig sites.
Photo: Xu Xing

John Whitlock, a paleontologist at Mount Aloysius College who wasn’t involved with the new work, said he’s skeptical that Lingwulong is truly a diplodocid. He told Gizmodo it’s possible that the dinosaur is more related to Middle Jurassic sauropods from China called Mamenchisaurus or Omeisaurus, thanks to similarities in their skulls and vertebrae. It is still possibly a diplodocid, he said, because it’s so old and primitive that it may just not have evolved what we think of as a typical diplodocid skull yet.

If Lingwulong is indeed a diplodocid, it’s the first to be discovered in East Asia. That surprising discovery is what inspired the dinosaur’s name, as the researchers write in their paper: “Lingwu, after the region where the specimens were found; long, the Mandarin Chinese for ‘dragon’; and shenqi, the Mandarin Chinese for ‘amazing’, reflecting the unexpected discovery of a dicraeosaurid in the Middle Jurassic of China.” Altogether, it’s the “amazing dragon of Lingwu.”

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And though it’s often difficult to guess what a dinosaur looked like or how it behaved based on a fossil, Mannion had some ideas.

“It wouldn’t have been too dissimilar to other sauropods, although the group Lingwulong belonged to had slightly shorter necks than other sauropods,” he said. He also noted they ranged from 35 to 55 feet (11 to 17 meters) long. “They probably moved around fairly slowly most of the time, in small herds, and ate quite a lot.”

[Nature Communications]

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