The Terrible-Headed Dragon

A bizarre new fossil unearthed in China shakes up theories on long-necked creatures

by Monika Aichele

Monika Aichele

Modern giraffes are boring compared with the exotic long-necked creatures that roamed the Earth millions of years ago. Chun Li, a paleontologist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, recently discovered the newest addition to this mix, a marine reptile called Dinocephalosaurus orientalis ("terrible-headed lizard from the Orient") that lived 230 million years ago. Previously, paleontologists believed that aquatic reptiles caught their prey by moving their necks around like slithering eels. Li's lizard, with its expandable neck, may have had a hunting style all its own. Swimming dinosaurs generally used their outstretched necks to sneak up on unsuspecting prey, hiding their massive bodies in the murky water behind tiny heads. "The long necks of most aquatic reptiles were used as a form of deception," says anatomist Michael LaBarbera of the University of Chicago, one of Li's co-authors. But the Terrible Head had an extra trick: As it approached its prey, the reptile would contract its five-foot-long neck slightly, then lurch forward and expand its throat at the same time, sucking in water and fish at once like an underwater vacuum cleaner. Li's discovery means that there may be more to dino and reptile physiology than previously believed. Here, what's known so far.