Xu marks the spot for China’s wealth of new dinosaur finds
Xu Xing, a Chinese paleontologist, is on a roll. This year alone he has discovered seven new species of dinosaur, including one that is 200 million years old — the most ancient specimen he has unearthed so far.
In all, Xu has named over 70 dinosaurs, more than any other living paleontologist. But his discoveries aren’t just the result of long hours at dusty archaeological digs. His success is owed to China’s construction boom churning up fossils as vast cities continue to rise from the ground.
While bulldozers have unearthed prehistoric sites in many countries, the scale and speed of China’s urbanization is unprecedented, according to the United Nations Development Program.
Xu spends his time racing all over the country following leads from the building boom, earning him the moniker of “China’s Indiana Jones.”
“Basically we are reconstructing the evolutionary tree of life,” he says. “If you have more species to study, you have more branches on that tree, more information about the history of life on Earth.” The population of Chinese cities has quintupled in 40 years, to nearly 900 million. By the year 2030, one in five city-dwellers in the world will be Chinese. Whole new cities are being planned to alleviate pressure in some of China’s biggest metropolises, as urban sprawl continues to spread in major city clusters in Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei, and the Yangtze River Delta and Pearl River Delta regions.
This is all music to Xu’s ears, whose celebrity as a world-leading scientist continues to grow. One of his latest finds, from a construction site in Jiangxi province, will shed light on how modern birds’ reproductive systems evolved from dinosaurs.
His work has attracted attention from schoolchildren in multiple countries, who mail him handwritten notes and crayon drawings of dinosaurs, several of which hang in his Beijing office.
Toru Sekiyu, a paleontologist from the Fukui Prefectural Dinosaur Museum in Japan, who assisted on the Yanji dig, called his Chinese colleague “a superstar paleontologist.”
Xu’s previous discoveries have included the eight-metre-long gigantoraptor, which would have towered over humans today, and the microraptor, a tiny, fourwinged dinosaur weighing in at about a kilogram. New finds give Xu the opportunity to be creative, he says, coming up with species names inspired by Chinese culture, such as the Mei Long (“sleeping dragon”), the Dilong Paradoxus (“emperor dragon”), and the Nanyangosaurus, named after a city close to its origins that is also the hometown of a famous military strategist in Chinese history.
When Xu discovered fossils in Yanji, an hour from the North Korea border, in 2016, city authorities halted construction on adjacent highrise buildings, in accordance with a national law.
“The developer was really not happy with me,” he said, but the local government has since embraced its new-found claim to fame.
The city is now facilitating Xu’s work, and even built an on-site police station to guard the fossils from theft.
Once the excavation is complete, a museum is planned to display recovered fossils and photographs of Xu’s team at work.
If you have more species to study, you have more branches on that tree, more information about the history of life on Earth.
Paleontologist Xu Xing, above and below right, examines an ancient crocodile skull and teeth recovered from a site in Yanji, China in September. The excavation was begun after construction crews erecting new apartment buildings uncovered dinosaur bones and other fossils, some dating back 100 million years.