New 'amazing dragon' dinosaur discovery has scientists changing their theories on dinosaur evolution

New 'amazing dragon' dinosaur discovery has scientists changing their theories on dinosaur evolution

It's hard to believe that there was genuinely a time when dinosaurs existed. To most of us, they are simply animals that we see in movies or read about in books, but they were real and they were on this planet for longer than we have been.

As I'm sure you're all aware by now, dinosaurs were massive. And, in particular, Sauropods were absolutely ginormous. The long-necked beasts stretched up to 210 feet from head to tail and could weigh in at 70 tons.

However, due to a new study published today, everything we thought we knew about the Sauropod has been thrown into doubt. A new Chinese species of sauropod named Lingwulong shenqi—the “amazing dragon of Lingwu”— implies that major groups of Earth's largest land animals actually came into fruition some 15 million years earlier than previously thought.

Illustration of Mamenchisaurus eating leaves of tree branch Credit: Getty

The announcement comes weeks after another paper revealed that sauropods' early existence was a time of evolutionary experimentation.

“I love these papers, as they are both game-changers,” says University of Edinburgh palaeontologist Steve Brusatte, the author of The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs and a National Geographic explorer. “It's not so much that what we thought we knew about sauropods was wrong, but just that some of the key events in their evolution happened many millions of years before we used to think.”

It's believed that sauropods dominated the Earth's ecosystem for most of the dinosaur period, stretching from the late Triassic - more than 200 million years ago - to the late Cretaceous, about 90 million years ago. But they weren't always massive, in fact, the first sauropod would have been pretty small.

According to palaeontologists, "true sauropods" didn't become the living, vegetarian skyscrapers that they were until about 180 million years ago, during the middle Jurassic. They would then grow continuously from birth and their bodies would morph to either shed weight or put more on.

But, despite what we may have been told, it turns out that these evolutionary steps may have happened much earlier than we originally thought.

In the Saurian Age Credit: Getty

A team led by Cecilia Apaldetti from the National University of San Juan found the remains of a long-necked dinosaur in Patagonia that they dated to roughly 208 million years ago. The partial remains, which were named Ingentia prima, belonged to a dinosaur that was around 34 feet long and roughly ten tons.

These cousins of the sauropods had created their own way of getting absolutely massive. Unlike the mid-Jurassic sauropods, their bones didn't grow smoothly; instead, they grew in alternating slow and fast bursts. What's more, their neck bones were air-filled or elongated in the same way.

Speaking about the discovery, Apaldetti said:

“Dinosaurs had an unusual ability to innovate anatomically from the beginning of their evolution.

“This allowed them to dominate and prevail in almost any terrestrial ecosystem for millions of years. This 'anatomical versatility' probably was crucial to them becoming one of the most successful vertebrates in the history of life on Earth.”

Just weeks after Ingentia's discovery, a separate team of palaeontologists in China announced the discovery of Lingwulong, a 174-million-year-old type of sauropod called a diplodocoid.

Bones of a Brontosaurus Credit: Getty

The find has caused a splash in the science world, with Lingwulong being found in a place where palaeontologists wouldn't usually look.

The discovery of Lingwulong stands out, as it helps clarify the sauropod evolution after the breakup of Pangaea, the supercontinent. This break-up played a huge role in how terrestrial life developed, with newly formed seas separating once-connected areas and land animals being forced to live in smaller spaces.

Before the discovery of Lingwulong, no diplodocoids had ever been found in eastern Asia. Palaeontologists put this down to the biological reality of the time, with them believing that an inland sea had cut off eastern Asia from the rest of Pangaea.

Illustration representing Allosaurus and Apatosaurus Credit: Getty

However, with Lingwulong now in the picture, scientists believe that sauropods achieved widespread distribution across the whole of Pangea before it broke up, meaning that parts of the sauropod family forked off 15 million years earlier than previously thought.

“The discovery of our new animal...means that this isolation hypothesis has been somewhat watered down, or even placed in serious doubt,” says study co-author Paul Upchurch, a palaeontologist at University College London and a National Geographic explorer. “...We propose that many of the groups that were supposedly absent in China might well have been present, but we simply do not see them there yet because of poor sampling in the fossil record rather than genuine absence.”

You learn something new every day, huh?

H/T: National Geographic