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.

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