'Beautiful': Scientists unveil 240 million-year-old 'Chinese dragon' fossil

Scientists are now able to paint a picture of what a 240 million-year-old "strange marine reptile" looks like thanks to some newly found fossils.

A team of international researchers was able to “depict the bizarre long-necked creature” named Dinocephalosaurus orientalis for the very first time, National Museums of Scotland said Friday.

The aquatic reptile, said to be from the Triassic Period in China, has been on scientists’ radars since 2003, but the discovery of more complete specimens, including one fully articulated fossil, gave them the opportunity to get a full picture of the creature.

The fossil helped scientists get a “beautiful complete specimen from the tip of the nose right down to the tip of the tail," Dr. Nick Fraser, keeper of Natural Sciences at National Museums Scotland told CNN. "It’s curled around in this sort of figure of eight and … it’s very reminiscent of a Chinese dragon."

Bones first spotted over a decade ago

Bits and pieces of what would later be identified as the Dinocephalosaurus orientalis were initially discovered by Li Chun, a professor from the Institute of Vertebrate Palaeontology and Palaeoanthropology in Beijing, according to CNN.

Chun noticed a small vertebra in a limestone slab while visiting a village in the Guizhou Province in the southwest region of China, Fraser told CNN. He found other bone fragments in a pig pen nearby, uncovering the new species by piecing the fragments together, CNN reported.

Scientists were able to discover that the “Chinese dragon” had 32 separate neck bones, equipping the aquatic reptile with an extraordinarily long neck, according to a news release from National Museums Scotland.

That discovery alone has surprised scientists, who have already speculated that the creature’s long neck helped it eat. Its exact function, though, is unclear, according to published findings in the Earth and Environmental Science Transactions journal of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

“I’m still baffled by the function of the long neck,” Fraser told CNN. "The only thing that I can come up with is that they were feeding in the waters that had rocks, and perhaps crevices, in them."

Chinese dragon resembles other marine reptile

Scientists came to compare the “Chinese dragon” with Tanystropheus hydroides, another ancient marine reptile with an unusually long neck, according to National Museums Scotland.

The Tanystropheus hydroides is said to have existed around the same time as the “Chinese dragon,” but was observed in both Europe and China, National Museums Scotland said.

Both Dinocephalosaurus orientalis and Tanystropheus hydroides are considered marine reptiles, with similar measurements and skull features.

The “Chinese dragon” most closely resembles a snake since it possesses many more vertebrae both in the neck and in the torso, according to National Museums Scotland.

Its flippered limbs and preserved fish in the stomach region were one of a number of indications that the reptile was “clearly very well adapted to an oceanic lifestyle,” National Museums Scotland said.

“As paleontologists, we use modern-day analogs to understand life in the past. For Dinocephalosaurus and Tanystropheus, there is no modern-day analog,” Fraser told CNN, adding that they were struggling quite a bit to find a modern-day counterpart.

Contributing: Issy Ronald; CNN

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 240 million-year-old 'Chinese dragon' fossil unveiled by scientists