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Chinese fossil find reveals a “muddy dragon on the road to heaven”

The fossil remains of dinosaur Tongtianlong limosus.
The fossil remains of dinosaur Tongtianlong limosus.

A dinosaur fossil nicknamed the Mud Dragon has given scientists insight into a family of creatures that flourished just before the mass extinction.

The bird-like species was discovered on a Chinese building site, preserved almost intact and lying on its front with its wings and neck outstretched.

A conservator working beside the Tongtianlong skeleton.
A conservator working beside the Tongtianlong skeleton.

Scientists speculate that the creature may have died in this pose after becoming mired in mud 66-72 million years ago.

They have named the new species Tongtianlong limosus, meaning “muddy dragon on the road to heaven”.

The two-legged animal belongs to a family of feathered dinosaurs called oviraptorosaurs, which are characterised by having short, toothless heads and sharp beaks.

How the Tongtianlong limosus may have looked.
How the Tongtianlong limosus may have looked.

Fossil discoveries in recent decades suggest this group of flightless creatures was experiencing a population boost, diversifying into new species, during the 15 million years before dinosaurs became extinct.

It was probably one of the last groups of dinosaurs to diversify before the asteroid impact 66 million years ago which killed off all non-bird dinosaurs.

The skeleton was found during excavations using explosives at a school construction site near Ganzhou in southern China and remains remarkably well preserved and almost complete, despite some harm caused by a dynamite blast.

Researchers from Edinburgh University and China, who carried out the study, say the finding helps better understand how the last-surviving dinosaurs were flourishing before tragedy struck.

Dr Steve Brusatte, of Edinburgh’s School of GeoSciences, said: “This new dinosaur is one of the most beautiful, but saddest, fossils I’ve ever seen.

“But we’re lucky that the ‘Mud Dragon’ got stuck in the muck, because its skeleton is one of the best examples of a dinosaur that was flourishing during those final few million years before the asteroid came down and changed the world in an instant.”

Some oviraptorosaurs, including the newly found species, had crests of bone on their heads that were probably used as display structures to attract mates and intimidate rivals, like modern-day cassowaries.

Dr Junchang Lu, of the Institute of Geology, Chinese Academy of Geological Sciences, said: “The discovery of the new oviraptorid dinosaur further indicates that the Ganzhou area of southern China is a most productive locality of oviraptorid dinosaurs and has a huge diversity of oviraptorosaurs from the late Cretaceous.

“It will provide important information on the study of evolution, distribution and behaviour of oviraptorid dinosaurs.”

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