A new species of dinosaur with a neck half the length of its body has been discovered by University of Alberta paleontologists in China.

And the researchers wonder if the ancient Chinese may have viewed a similar skeleton, leading to the enduring myths of dragons.

The fossil, which included a large neck vertebra with the head attached, was named Qijianglong. That translates to "Dragon of Qijiang," in honour of the fossil's discovery at a southern China construction site near Qijiang City in 2006.

Tetsuto Miyashita, along with Lida Xing and renowned paleontologist Philip Currie, were involved in the discovery, which has been published in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.

"There is one theory that the Chinese got an inspiration for the dragon by looking at a dinosaur skeleton in the ground," Miyashita said. "They stumbled upon a long-necked creature like this and they didn't know what it was.

"So they put the crocodiles and snakes that they knew together to picture a big, mythical creature like dragons."

Miyashita said there are plenty of species of dinosaurs with long necks, but they are usually only one-third of the body length. This one would have had a neck about 7.5 metres in length.

"These ones are an extreme species."

Reconstructed Qijianglong dinosaur

A reconstructed skeleton of Qijianglong is now on display in Qijiang Museum (University of Alberta)

Miyashita said the neck of the Qijianglong was filled with air to prevent it from being top heavy. He said it would have been a herbivore and lived on land about 160 million years ago during the late Jurassic period.

It is probably only found in China because of an ancient shallow sea that surrounded the region.

"Probably the big dinosaurs could not move around or swim across that shallow sea," he said. "So Asia was quite isolated and, as you can imagine, in an isolated environment a lot of extreme things can happen because they are kind of protected by the barriers."

Tetsuto Miyashita

University of Alberta graduate student Tetsuto Miyashita, 4th from left, was the lead author of the study. Here he poses with officials from the Qiangdong Museum.

Miyashita said finding the head attached to the neck is rare and occurs in only about five per cent of fossils that are found.

Interlocking joints between the vertebrae indicate a surprisingly stiff neck that was much more mobile bending vertically than sideways, similar to a construction crane.

The skeleton is now housed in a museum in Qijiang.