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A record has been smashed as palaeontologists have identified that a dinosaur from northwest China had a neck that was a whopping 49.5 feet long. The fossilised remains of Mamenchisaurus sinocanadorum — which lived some 162 million years ago during the Late Jurassic period — was discovered in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region back in 1987. Its massive neck, which was vital for gathering vegetation to eat to maintain its vast size, was some 13 feet longer than the typical British bus.
M. sinocanadorum is a species of “sauropod” — a clade of dinosaurs, famously including the giant Diplodocus, which are known for their elongated necks and tails.
They were first unearthed in the United State in the late 1800s, and their iconic appearance have captured the imagination of scientists and the general public ever since.
It was the sauropods’ long necks that allowed them to become efficient at gathering food — allowing them to plant themselves in one spot and gobble up surrounding vegetation without needing to waste energy moving about.
In addition, palaeontologists believe that the neck also helped the vast creatures to shed excess body heat, much like elephants’ do with their ears, helping to make their vast size viable.
This way of life — which experts dub “quadrupedal gigantism” — is not one available to mammals, or any other form of life alive today.
Despite this, it proved immensely successful for sauropods, who evolved early in the history of dinosaurs and lasted some 162 million years until the cataclysmic asteroid impact which killed off the non-avian dinosaurs some 66 million years ago.
According to the researchers, the question of which sauropod should win the record for having the longest neck is not as straightforward to determine as one might imagine.
Because they were so vast, the largest species tend to be the ones about which we also know the least — for the simple reason that such big animals are hard to bury in sediments such that they can be successfully preserved in the fossil record.
M. sinocanadorum, for example, is only known from a handful of neck and skull bones.
In their new study, however, palaeontologist Dr Andrew Moore of New York’s Stony Brook University and his colleagues were able to reconstruct the dinosaur’s evolutionary relationships, allowing them to make comparisons to some of the more complete examples of skeletons of their closest relatives.
It was these comparisons that allowed them to calculate that M. sinocanadorum had a neck that was 49.5 feet long — the longest that can be confidently inferred for any known sauropod.
The study is part of a larger project investigating the Mamenchisauridae family — a group of particularly long-necked sauropods that are known to have lived in East Asia between the Middle Jurassic and the Early Cretaceious periods, or roughly 174–114 million years ago.
Dr Moore said: “All sauropods were big, but jaw-droppingly long necks didn’t evolve just once. Mamenchisaurids are important because they pushed the limits on how long a neck can be, and were the first lineage of sauropods to do so.
“With a 15-metre-long neck, it looks like Mamenchisaurus sinocanadorum might be a record-holder – at least until something longer is discovered!”
Analysis of sauropods like M. sinocanadorum can also help scientists solve the puzzle of how exactly sauropods managed to evolve such hulking bodies without collapsing under their own weight.
Palaeontologists have determined that the animals (like their modern cousins, the birds) had porous, air-filled bones, which would have helped lighten their skeletons. In fact, CT scans of M. sinocanadorum indicate that its bones were around two-thirds air by volume.
This meant, however, that the dinosaur also had to evolve lengthy “cervical ribs” along its neck to provide it the necessary structural support to reach its colossal length.
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Paper co-author and palaeobiologist Professor Paul Upchurch said: “Biomechanical studies of the mamenchisaurid neck suggest that it was elevated at only a relatively shallow angle above the horizontal — 20-30°.
“However, even at this relatively shallow angle, the extreme length of the neck would still mean that the animal’s head could reach heights of around 7.5 to 10 m above ground level, facilitating feeding on tree foliage.”
His colleague and fellow paper author and palaeontologist Dr Ye Yong of the Zigong Dinosaur Museum in China’s Sichuan Province added: “Mamenchisaurus sinocanadorum underscores how much we can learn about sauropod evolution even from very incomplete specimens.”
The full findings of the study were published in the Journal of Systematic Palaeontology.
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