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Dinocephalosaurus: 240-million-year-old 'Chinese dragon' was a fierce predator

The Triassic period, known for the rise of the first dinosaurs, has yielded another remarkable discovery: Dinocephalosaurus orientalis. 

The name translates to “terrible-headed reptile,” a fitting description for the creature’s imposing features. This newly-identified reptile, unearthed by researchers from several countries, also sheds light on the diversity and complexity of the Triassic era.

Fossil discovery 

The fossils were recovered from seabeds of southwestern China. Scientists examined these fossils and compared their remains to other marine fossils. 

The goal was to understand what made Dinocephalosaurus unique and where it fit within the evolutionary story. The analysis shed light on its distinctive features and its role in the ancient ecosystem.

Streamlined body 

Dinocephalosaurus had a sleek, torpedo-shaped body and a long, powerful tail. These features were perfectly suited for its life swimming in the ocean.

The smooth, streamlined body of Dinocephalosaurus helped it cut through the water easily, like a boat slicing through waves. The reptile could swim quickly and efficiently, using less energy to travel long distances. This advantage was crucial for hunting prey, as it enabled Dinocephalosaurus to chase after them or burst forward for a surprise attack.

Powerful tail 

Similar to many modern aquatic animals, Dinocephalosaurus’ long tail served several purposes. The strong, flexible muscles in the tail propelled it through the water, acting like an oar. 

This powerful tail allowed for quick, agile movements, which were essential for both catching prey and escaping from predators in the fast-paced underwater world. Additionally, the tail helped balance the long neck of Dinocephalosaurus.

Exceptionally long neck and ribs

The creature had a super-long neck that sets it apart from other sea creatures of its time.  Compared to most reptiles, where the neck is short, Dinocephalosaurus’s long neck gave it a major advantage in the water, letting it find food in ways other similar creatures couldn’t. 

The long neck was powerful because of its exceptionally long ribs. These ribs helped the neck in two ways. 

First, they made the neck strong enough to hold itself up and move quickly in the water. This was important because Dinocephalosaurus needed to move its neck quickly to catch prey. 

Second, the ribs allowed the neck to bend and twist in many directions. This flexibility was helpful for finding prey in tight spaces and catching agile animals.

Piscivorous diet

Dinocephalosaurus ate mostly fish, as shown by the shape of its skull and teeth. The reptile had sharp teeth to grab the fish and prevent them from escaping.

These adaptations show that Dinocephalosaurus was an important part of its ecosystem. By eating fish, it helped to control their population and keep the environment balanced. 

The fact that Dinocephalosaurus specialized in eating fish also suggests that the oceans during this time period were plentiful and diverse.

Reproductive strategy

Scientists believe that Dinocephalosaurus gave birth to live young. This is because similar sea creatures reproduced this way, and Dinocephalosaurus lived entirely in the water. 

Laying eggs in water is risky because the eggs can be easily eaten by other animals or damaged by the environment. By giving birth to live young, Dinocephalosaurus could protect its offspring and improve their chances of survival.

Living entirely in water meant that Dinocephalosaurus couldn’t lay eggs on land like some other reptiles. This may have helped them spread to new areas and become more successful in the oceans.

Study significance

“The discovery of the additional fossils allows us to see this remarkable long-necked animal in its entirety for the first time. It is reminiscent of the long, snake-like, mythical Chinese dragon. We are sure that Dinocephalosaurus orientalis will capture the imagination around the world because of its striking appearance,” said study co-author Dr. Nick Fraser of the National Museum of Scotland.

The research shows us how amazing and varied life is on Earth. It also surprises us by showing how creatures can change to fit their surroundings in different ways than we thought. Dinocephalosaurus is a reminder that life on Earth is always changing and evolving.

“This was an international effort. In collaboration with colleagues from the United States of America and Europe, we used newly discovered specimens to expand our previous knowledge of Dinocephalosaurus. Among all the extraordinary Triassic finds we have made in Guizhou Province, this marine reptile probably stands out as the most remarkable,” said study co-author Dr. Li Chun, curator at the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology in Beijing.

The study is published in the journal Earth and Environmental Science Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

Image Credit: Marlene Donelly

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