A farmer in China stumbled upon some fossils more than a decade ago, which led to an excavation, which led to a realization: It’s time to rethink the evolutionary history of some of the biggest dinosaurs that ever walked the earth.
In a study published this week in the science journal Nature Communications, paleontologists said they had discovered the earliest diplodocoid yet, and the only one to be unearthed in East Asia.
Diplodocoids are part of the sauropod subgroup — the one known for those big plant-eaters with four legs and long necks. The fossils in China belonged to a previously undiscovered species, Lingwulong shenqi, and are about 174 million years old. That’s about 15 million years older than would be expected for a dinosaur of its type.
“This means that actually a large number of different sauropod groups must have evolved a lot earlier than previously realized,” said Philip Mannion, a paleontologist at Imperial College London and one of the study’s authors.
It also means that diplodocoids made their way to East Asia before the continents — once a giant landmass called Pangea — tore away from each other.
The fossils of Lingwulong shenqi, or the “amazing dragon of Lingwu” in Mandarin, were uncovered near the city of Lingwu in northwestern China. It was a stunning find: At least seven dinosaurs had died near each other, giving scientists plenty of material to work with.
The study was led by Xu Xing of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, a paleontologist known for his groundbreaking discoveries.
“Diplodocus-like neosauropods were thought to have never made it to East Asia because this region was cut off from the rest of the world by Jurassic seaways, so that China evolved its own distinctive and separate dinosaur fauna,” Dr. Xu said in a statement from University College London, which was involved in the study.
“However, Lingwulong shows that these Diplodocus-like sauropods were present after all, and implies that the isolation of East Asia was less profound” than paleontologists had realized.
Lingwulong shenqi was not as big as some of its sauropod cousins, like the Apatosaurus or Diplodocus. Its neck was shorter and it appears to have been between 35 and 55 feet long from head to tail.
Sauropods proliferated in the Late Jurassic epoch, but the discovery of Lingwulong shenqi in rocks from the Middle Jurassic suggests that sauropod species began to diverge much earlier than we thought. And that raises a new question: Did this “amazing dragon” have brothers, sisters and cousins, in Asia or elsewhere, that have never been seen?
“It’s so exciting because what that means is that we have a lot more to discover,” said Mathew Wedel, a paleontologist and sauropod expert who was not a part of the study. “All of that missing history is out there. It’s waiting to be found. We’ve just got to go find these Middle Jurassic rocks. We have to look harder.”
This week’s study follows another paper about an herbivorous, four-legged giant — the Ingentia prima, which also lived earlier than might be expected. And now Lingwulong shenqi has opened up another new line of inquiry and exploration.
“It suggests that we have major gaps,” Dr. Mannion said, adding that it will take many more discoveries before humans are able to fully trace the branches of the sauropods’ family tree.