All you need to know about the recently found fossils that are rewriting the history of the long-necked dinosaurs

by Elton Gomes

Fossils unearthed from a hill in northwestern China have forced scientists to caste doubts on the history of a dinosaur lineage that produced the largest living creatures to have walked the earth.

On Tuesday, scientists announced the discovery of lingwulong shenqi, a member of the group of plant-eating dinosaurs called sauropods that had extremely long necks, long tails, small heads, and pillar-like legs. Reuters reported that the lingwulong species was known to have lived 174 million years ago during the Jurassic Period. The name “lingwulong shenqi” means “amazing dragon” and is derived from Lingwu, the city closest to the site where a farmer spotted the fossils.

The report further stated that the scientists excavated bones from at least eight to 10 Lingwulong individual creatures. Paleontologist Xing Xu of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, who headed the study, said that the largest of these excavations was about 57 feet (17.5 metres) long.

Lingwulong represents the earliest-known member belonging to the sauropod lineage. This was confirmed by scientists as the lingwulong were defined by anatomical traits that set the apart from primitive sauropods that appeared tens of millions of years earlier.

This discovery pushes back the appearance of advanced sauropods by 15 million years. Sauropods had a lineage that would later include Jurassic-age giants like Diplodocus and Brontosaurus as well as gargantuan creatures like Argentinosaurus, Dreadnoughtus, and Patagotitan that were the largest land animals on record during the Cretaceous Period.

“Previously, we thought all of these advanced sauropods originated around 160 million years ago and rapidly diversified and spread across the planet in a time window perhaps as short as 5 million years,” said co-author of the study, Paul Upchurch, from University College London, as per a Reuters report.

The announcement comes just weeks after another research revealed that sauropods’ early days were a time of evolutionary experimentation. One of the sauropods’ ancient cousin named ingentia prima– the first giant – arrived at an anatomical path to hugeness millions of years before the long-necked dinosaurs even existed.

According to a report in National Geographic, paleontologists were of the opinion that the “true sauropods” did not collate all the adaptations necessary in order to become living, vegetarian creatures until  about 180 million years ago. The excavation of lingwulong stands out as it helps clarify how the evolution of sauropods was in line with the breakup of Pangaea, the earth’s supercontinent.

With lingwulong in the picture, it is up to scientists to consider whether neosauropods achieved widespread distribution across Pangaea before the continent broke up. This means that major branches of the sauropod family separated some 15 million years earlier than previously thought.

Elton Gomes is a staff writer at Qrius