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China's 'Mud Dragon' fossil could be missing link
   2016-11-14 18:51:40    CRIENGLISH.com      Web Editor: Ding Xiaoxiao

One artist's impression of how the last moments of the Tongtianlong limosus, or Mud Dragon, might have looked, mired in mud, struggling for survival. [Imagined by Zhao Chuang, courtesy Edinburgh University]

Nicknamed 'The Muddy Dragon' a fossil discovered in Jiangxi Province in east China suggests that a new family of dinosaurs was flourishing just before the mass extinction.

The fossil of the birdlike species was found almost intact on a building site lying on its front with its wings and neck outstretched.

It was almost destroyed by blasting being carried out for construction work at a site in Ganzhou.

The scientists gave it the name Tongtianlong limosus, meaning 'muddy dragon on the road to heaven' and suggest it may have died in this pose, after becoming stuck in mud about 66 to 72 million years ago.

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

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

The researchers from China and the UK suggest the Jiangxi fossil, found in the Nanxiong Formation, is particularly special for the insight it provides into the evolutionary transition from dinosaurs to birds.

"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," says Steve Brusatte from the School of GeoSciences at Edinburgh University.

Characteristic skulls

The fossilized skeleton of the Tongtianlong limosus, or Mud Dragon, in the position it fell into the mud 72 million years ago. [Photo: courtesy Edinburgh University]

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

Some, 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.

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

Good condition

The fossil remains remarkably well preserved and almost complete, despite some harm caused by a dynamite blast at the construction site.

The study, published in Scientific Reports, was carried out by the Institute of Geology, Chinese Academy of Geological Sciences and the Dongyang Museum, China, and rsearchers from Edinburgh University in Scotland.

"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," says Dr Junchang Lv Chinese Academy of Geological Sciences.

The researchers say the find helps better understand how the last-surviving dinosaurs were flourishing before tragedy struck.

It is the latest in a fruitful collaboration between Edinburgh and the Chinese Academy of Geological Sciences.

The research was supported by the National Natural Science Foundation of China, the Fundamental Research Funds for the Chinese Academy of Geological Sciences, the EU Erasmus Mundus Experts Sustain Program and a Marie Curie Career Integration Grant.

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