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New fossil sheds light on old mystery

CHICAGO--The well-preserved fossil of a newly discovered reptile species may explain the function of the extremely long neck for which some protorosaurs are known a feature that has puzzled scientists for decades.

The Protorosauria is an order of diverse predatory reptiles that lived as far back as 280 million years ago. Scientists have never been able to figure out the function of the extremely long neck that characterizes some species of this group, including Tanystropheus longobardicus, which was discovered in the 1850s.

About twice as long as its trunk, Tanystropheus' neck has 12 vertebrae along which extend elongated cervical ribs. Years ago, scientists concluded that the long, stiff neck was more or less a consequence of growth patterns rather than a specific functional adaptation. The new species of protorosaur, however, provides additional clues and suggests that the long neck in these animals may have been part of a unique and very effective method for capturing prey in water.

Dinocephalosaurus orientalis, which means "terrible-headed lizard from the Orient," was recently discovered in southern China. It has a neck made up of 25 vertebrae, again with elongated cervical ribs extending along them. In an embargoed article to be published in Science on September 24, 2004, the authors describe how the neck may have been used to capture prey.

"This is important research because we have finally explained the functional purpose of this strange, long neck," said Olivier Rieppel, PhD, a co-author of the Science paper and chair of geology and curator of fossil amphibians and reptiles at Chicago's Field Museum. "It allowed an almost perfect strike at prey, which usually consisted of elusive fish and squid."

Prey in water is slippery, and any movement toward it not only alerts the prey of an attack but also creates a pressure wave that could push the prey away. Fish and some turtles combat these factors with suction feedin
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23-Sep-2004


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