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240 Million Year Old 'Dragon'

Scientists have revealed a new, remarkably complete fossil - a 16ft (5m) long aquatic reptile from the Triassic period. The extraordinary looking creature dates back 240 million years and has been dubbed a "dragon" because of its extremely long neck.

It is actually called Dinocephalosaurus orientalis, a species that was originally identified two decades ago after the fossil was discovered in ancient limestone deposits in southern China. However, the discovery of additional, more complete specimens since then has enabled an international team of scientists to depict the creature in full.

Fossil of a Dinocephalosaurus orientalis
Credit: National Museums of Scotland

Dr Nick Fraser, from National Museums Scotland, who was part of the international team that studied the fossil, said this was the first time scientists had been able to see it in full. He described it as "a very strange animal", saying that "it had flipper-like limbs and its neck is longer than its body and tail combined."

The researcher speculated that a "long, bendy and flexible neck", with its 32 separate vertebrae, might have provided a hunting advantage - allowing Dinocephalosaurus orientalis to search for food in crevices under the water.

"This discovery just adds to the weirdness of the Triassic," Dr Fraser told BBC News. "And every time we look in these deposits, we find something new."

Despite superficial similarities, Dinocephalosaurus was not closely related to the famous long-necked plesiosaurs that only evolved around 40 million years later and which are thought to have been the inspiration for the Loch Ness monster.

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