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50-foot-long 'dragon' dinosaur species discovered in China

The long-necked Qijianglong lived about 160 million years ago in the Late Jurassic period. Did its fossils inspire ancient dragon legends?

A rendering of what the Qijianglong might have looked like by co-discoverer Lida Xing. Lida Xing

Sauropods, a category of dinosaurs that includes the Diplodocus, typically had necks that comprised up to a third of their body size. A new species of dinosaur described in a recent Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology had a neck that could stretch up to 25 feet long, which is half its body length.

The dino has been named Qijianglong (pronounced "CHI-jyang-lon"), which means "dragon of Qijiang." Its bones were discovered near China's Qijiang City by construction workers in 2006. It belongs to a family of sauropods known as mamenchisaurids. Miraculously, when the beast was unearthed, its head was still attached to its vertebrae, something extremely unusual in the paleontology world.

"It is rare to find a head and neck of a long-necked dinosaur together because the head is so small and easily detached after the animal dies," explains Tetsuto Miyashita, a University of Alberta paleontologist who, along with former master's student Lida Xing and professor Philip Currie, discovered the new species.

Also of note is that the dinosaur's vertebrae were filled with air, much like the skeletons of birds. This made their necks fairly lightweight for their massive size (and no doubt, kept them from face-planting when they were being chased by other big baddies). The vertebrae were also found to be interlocking in such a way that would have allowed the dinosaur to lift its head up and down like a construction crane, but not move it very easily from side to side.

The dragon of Qijiang is thought to have lived about 160 million years ago during the Late Jurassic period, when dinosaurs like the Stegosaurus also roamed Earth. Its unusually long neck hints at the breadth of evolutionary adaptations, says Miyashita.

"Qijianglong is a cool animal. If you imagine a big animal that is half neck, you can see that evolution can do quite extraordinary things," he said in a statement.

The paleontologist also wonders if ancient residents of China -- the only place where mamenchisaurids are found -- once stumbled upon the remains of a Qijianglong, which could have contributed to legends of dragons in the region.

"China is home to the ancient myths of dragons," said Miyashita. "I wonder if the ancient Chinese stumbled upon a skeleton of a long-necked dinosaur like Qijianglong and pictured that mythical creature."