When it comes to solv­ing the fos­sil puz­zle, ev­ery piece counts

China Daily (Canada) - - ACROSS NORTH AMERICA -

The fos­sil-hun­ters term for an area that pro­vides a cor­nu­copia of high-qual­ity spec­i­mens is “Lager­staet­ten”, lit­er­ally stor­age places, or mother lode. And they’re lit­er­ally all over the world — four in Ger­many, three in the US, one each in Aus­tralia and Canada. But, when it comes to the Earth cough­ing up fos­sil re­mains, China is turn­ing out to have the mother lodes of Lager­staet­ten: Weng’an, Chengjiang, Kaili, Guan­ling, Je­hol, just to name a few.

There seem to be so many pre­his­toric fos­sils in China that farm­ers rou­tinely dig them up and sell them to col­lec­tors be­fore sci­en­tists can even get a look at them.

“You don’t need to do too much to dig up fos­sils in China,” Pingyi pa­le­on­tol­o­gist Wang Xiaoli told the New York Times. “When the wind blows, they re­veal them­selves.”

China , with this em­bar­rass­ment of pa­leo riches, is a nat­u­ral breed­ing ground for pa­le­on­tol­o­gists and with the na­tion’s fund­ing re­sources and cul­tural em­pha­sis on aca­demic dis­ci­pline, fer­tile soil for the science of pa­le­on­tol­ogy to flour­ish.

Af­ter decades of un­der­fund­ing, China be­gan boost­ing its fund­ing of fos­sil re­search at the turn of the mil­len­nium, and it is pay­ing off in im­pres­sive ways. Though the grant amounts are not large by in­ter­na­tional stan­dards, they are sub­stan­tial enough and tend go fur­ther in places like the Gobi Desert, where over­head is low and field re­searchers rel­ish the ad­ven­ture of ex­plor­ing in re­mote cor­ners of the wilder­ness — and rewrit­ing history.

The god­fa­ther of Chi­nese fos­sil hun­ters is pa­le­on­tol­o­gist Xu Xing, who is based at the In­sti­tute of Ver­te­brate Pa­le­on­tol­ogy and Pa­le­oan­thro­pol­ogy (IVPP) in Beijing. At 49 years old, he has al­ready dis­cov­ered so many di­nosaurs he lost count and is also be­hind one of the most sur­pris­ing new the­o­ries about our planet’s pre­vi­ous dom­i­nant species — they had feath­ers.

Xu, who ac­tu­ally wanted to be an econ­o­mist, knew noth­ing about di­nosaurs grow­ing up in the western prov­ince of Xin­jiang, where his par­ents had re­lo­cated as part of the Cul­tural Revo­lu­tion. He did well in school, won a place at Pek­ing Univer­sity in Beijing in 1988, and though he put in for eco­nomics, it was a time when stu­dents didn’t get to pick their field of study. Pa­le­on­tol­ogy was cho­sen for him and he started to learn about di­nosaurs.

His first ah-ha mo­ment didn’t come un­til graduate school, he told Na­ture, when he stud­ied a couple of fos­sils his ad­vi­sor had put on the back burner. His anal­y­sis ended up push­ing a whole group of di­nosaurs back 30 mil­lion years — from the Cre­ta­ceous to the Juras­sic pe­riod.

“My ex­cite­ment [over a fos­sil] is pro­por­tional to the in­for­ma­tion I get from it,” he said, “and those were really ex­cit­ing fos­sils.”

Xu’s ex­cite­ment co­in­cided per­fectly with the boom in fos­sil hunt­ing in China. Farm­ers in Liaon­ing were find­ing more and more spec­i­mens and be­gin­ning to rec­og­nize their value. New con­struc­tion and roads were un­earthing still more. Ex­perts were in de­mand.

“When I started my ca­reer, I never ex­pected that I would have so many dis­cov­er­ies,” he said.

Fos­sils in China have not only fu­eled science, but also an in­dus­try, com­plete with prospec­tors, forg­eries and mid­dle­men. Lo­cal ad­min­is­tra­tors seek guidance on turn­ing their re­gions’ digs into mu­se­ums or theme parks to lure tourists. Sci­en­tists ne­go­ti­ate to get a look at the most sig­nif­i­cant finds.

One of the rich­est boun­ties of fos­sils has come from Liaon­ing prov­ince, north­east of Beijing, where vol­canic erup­tions and mud­slides be­tween 160 mil­lion and 120 mil­lion years ago abruptly en­tombed — and beau­ti­fully pre­served — an ar­ray of di­nosaur species, com­plete with im­prints of their feath­ers.

No­table among them was the Yu­tyran­nus huali, a 30-foot­long T-Rex shaped mon­ster with feath­ers on his hip, neck, back and tail; and the tiny An­chior­nis hux­leyi, whose long feath­ers helped Xu and his col­leagues not only prove, but pin down the tim­ing of di­nosaurs’ tran­si­tion to birds.

Xu’s lat­est dis­cov­ery an­nounced just last week adds to the fam­ily tree of one of the most iconic di­nosaurs known to ev­ery kid in the world — the Tricer­atops. It’s cousin, dubbed Hualiancer­atops, is not only older — by 100 mil­lion years — but also did not have its de­scen­dants’ boney bib and rack of three horns. In­stead it prob­a­bly had a bird-like beak and was much smaller.

Stay tuned. The big pic­ture is only be­gin­ning to take shape.

Con­tact the writer at chris- davis@chi­nadai­lyusa.com

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