Inside an air hangar in the middle of the countryside in China's Shandong province, 600 kilometers southeast of Beijing, paleontologist Xu Xing is distracted by looking at a drunk, red-faced tourist. The man has kicked off his shoes and sat down to take a photo in front of the fossilized femur of a hadrosaur, a gigantic duck-billed dinosaur that roamed the earth 99 million years ago during the late Cretaceous period.
The bone is found in a pile of gold cloth and stands 1.5 meters high. A sign in Chinese encourages visitors to nudge. «Rub, rub a dinosaur bone"Says the little ditty, evoking the common belief of locals that caressing dinosaur bones can bring good luck.
Chinese paleontologists have handled a large number of fossils in recent years, as the field is aligned with the new finds in Central Asia. Zhucheng, where Xu does field work, is the quarry for the freshest and most spectacular skeletons in the country. In a trench not far from the hangar, the large fossilized bones are scattered across the sandstone rock surface, randomly mixed in a way that suggests a mega-catastrophe that occurred here 10,000 years ago.
The Zhucheng fossil find is probably the largest repository of dinosaur bones in the world. And it's just the latest in a series of spectacular discoveries by 42-year-old Xu that undoubtedly helped uncover the planet's most important dinosaur finds.
“I'm pretty sure Xu Xing has described the newer types of dinosaurs before anyone else in the history of dinosaur paleontology."Says Peter Dodson, professor of paleontology at the University of Pennsylvania and co-editor of the book"The Dinosauria”. Meanwhile, Xu forgets how many new species he has discovered, he thinks he is in «around 30«.
Over the past 15 years, Xu has contributed to the discovery of the feathered dromaeosaurs in Liaoning, theropods in Xinjiang, and the Sinornithomimus (ostrich in Inner Mongolia), which are helping to change the way scientists around the world understand the life and evolution of dinosaurs.
«China is a very big country with lots of rocks of just the right kind'Explains David Hone, a British paleontologist who spent three years working at Zhucheng. While North America is home to Triassic dinosaurs (228 million to 199.6 million years), Late Jurassic (161.1 million to 145.5 million years) and late Cretaceous periods (99.5 million to 65.5 million years), scientists were finding little in China.
Hone says this is helping to fill in the gaps in the timeline of the development of dinosaurs and their geographic movements. The similarities between species in North America, Asia, and Europe can help scientists track dinosaur migrations across landmasses that no longer exist.
The discoveries in Liaoning and Xinjiang are also helping scientists unravel the evolution of today's birds, as Xu believes it is a lineage that begins with dinosaurs. One of Xu's most recent discoveries, the large chicken Xiaotingia Zhengi, is giving scientists rethinking the cause of the classification of Archeopteryx, considered the oldest known bird. The Zhengi Xiaotingia, Xu argues, provides evidence that both species were, in fact, feathered dinosaurs, not full-fledged birds.
In addition to deepening understanding of dinosaur development globally, Xu, a homegrown scientist, has promoted China as a country with significant dinosaur deposits on the international stage. Xu grew up in Ili prefecture in western Xinjiang province. When he was assigned to the department of paleontology at Beijing University, he had never heard of dinosaurs there before reading his admission paper.
“I took my great school teacher's work«Says Xu. «I didn't know what paleontology was: this is probably a new department. I think it's high tech or somethingXu thought at school, assuming that they would work with computers.
Xu took years to embrace the profession. He signed up for a master's program in paleontology, just because it would allow him to stay in Beijing. His interest was finally piqued, when his department began receiving some more unusual fossils to study. Xu still remembers his first little ceratopsian, a horned creature related to the Triceratops of North America.
«I think, in the end, I was born to be a paleontologist«He says now. Xu learned English so that he could publish in international magazines, where he believed the standards were higher. "In the 1990s, there were already some exceptional fossils discovered in China", He says, "but none of them had attracted world attention. All works were published in Chinese magazines”. «Not only are there language barriers in paleontology, the style of science is often different in China, without a tradition of discussion or review in journals, and in many cases science is dated«.
China's first dinosaurs were discovered in the 1920s, but for years scientists in the field did not have the proper facilities to support their findings. Today, international collaboration and a wide range of funding sources have helped Chinese archeology grow. "Before there were only one or two grants awarded [from national institutions] each year«Says Xu. «Now there are nine or ten«.
China's rapid development has helped promote archeology in another way, as more construction projects mean more opportunities to discover fossils. As a master's student, Xu says, it was difficult to find any fossils. The available set of fossils was small, and they were often reserved for the most experienced scientists. Now his office at the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology is full of them.
Although paleontologists had known about Zhucheng for more than two decades, scientists were slow to discover its enormous size until they stumbled across the main quarry in 2008. Since then, the seven-ton tyrannosaurus on which Hone worked a Maximum Zhuchengosaurus from the late Cretaceous, it is only one of nine new species discovered in the 300-meter-long trench.
The site is located on the outskirts of a town called Long Xian Gu. Fossils have been appearing in rocks for centuries. In addition to being large, the quarry is full of bones. "The site is very superlative«Says Dodson. «I couldn't even think of a story that explains why all the fossils are there«. The event that caused the death of the species remains a mystery: Xu says the following: “I suspect the animals were already dead and decomposing when their skeletons were washed here by a major flood or mud flow”.
The main ditch in Zhucheng is filled with duck-billed hadrosaurs. What the researchers now find exciting, however, are the other species more sparsely dispersed across the site. Only a few bones of Maximus Zhuchengosaurus were found among the hadrosaurs, Hone says. Researchers may not have a complete skeleton yet, but they do have the most important parts: the upper jaw, the top of the nose, and the jaw.
The site has also generated large ceratopsian finds, the only ones in all of Asia. The absence of ceratopsian fossils on the continent had long puzzled scientists. Many species of dinosaurs from North America also populated Asia, suggesting the presence of a land bridge over the Pacific Ocean during the late Cretaceous. But the lack of ceratopsians presented a potential flaw in the theory that was resolved by the presence of the Sinoceratops, Xu says.
As well as providing further evidence for the existence of a now submerged link between the two continents, the discovery suggests that 'there are very similar members on both sides of the gap«Says Hone. «Now we have one, we have to start looking for others«.
Walking through the ditch at Zhucheng, Xu is convinced that there are more discoveries to come. It stops at the bones of an as yet unnamed species, its skeleton emerging from the rock. "It's a very, very strange dinosaur«He says happily. «As a scientist, you always want to find a very strange dinosaur«.
Source: The Daily Beast
Hadrosaurus Image: copepod on Flickr
Ceratops Image: opacity on Flickr