The Dinosaur Code
Major findings by Chinese paleontologists
shed light on what is known
and not yet known about the lost giants
By TANG YUANKAI
Deserts in China’s northwest are known worldwide as a
potential goldmine for dinosaur fossil hunters
A live television broadcast of
the excavation of dinosaur fossils in northwest China’s desert
areas brought the attention of the nation to some of the country’s
most underdeveloped places late this summer.
It was the first time a dinosaur fossil excavation
had been filmed live in China, and on August 26 it happened at two
sites, Lingwu in Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region and Changji in Xinjiang
Uygur Autonomous Region, each place the site of a major discovery.
Despite the China Central Television (CCTV)
presenter’s sensationalized reporting of the discoveries to
millions of TV viewers, paleontologists on the front lines are remaining
cool-headed about the scientific significance of the finds. Instead,
they are viewing the discoveries as missing pieces in a jigsaw puzzle
that may one day form a picture of the time when dinosaurs walked
Scientists focused on three major findings.
First, fossils of the diplodocus, a huge herbivorous dinosaur, were
for the first time unearthed in Asia. Second, the longest dinosaur
neck fossil was discovered. Third, well-preserved fossilized teeth
of a subgroup of the saurischian dinosaur, or “lizard-hipped”
dinosaur, were unearthed.
Xu Xing, a renowned dinosaur expert and researcher
with the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology
of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, noted that the discoveries are
significant in the sense that dinosaur fossils of 160 million years
ago are very rare, and the Jurassic period, beginning approximately
210 million years ago and lasting for 70 million years, is a key
period of dinosaur studies. “The fossils found in Xinjiang
and Ningxia will greatly promote the research of the evolution of
dinosaurs,” Xu said.
Xu said the dinosaurs unearthed in Xinjiang
lived in the Jurassic period and dinosaurs unearthed in Ningxia
lived in the mid or late Jurassic or the Cretaceous period, but
the exact dating requires further studies. He added that 10 dinosaur
skeletons unearthed in Ningxia over the last two years were those
of sauropods, while three dinosaur species have been unearthed in
one pit in Xinjiang this time, including two herbivorous dinosaurs
and one carnivorous dinosaur.
After the fossils were unearthed, technicians
wrapped them with layers of asbestos paper before putting them in
cloth bags. Then they sprayed plaster on the cloth bags and packaged
them before sending the fossils to Beijing for restoration. Such
complicated procedures are to avoid damage to fossils during transportation.
Researchers hope the restoration work will to be finished by next
Diplodocus’ Asian debut
The herbivorous dinosaur unearthed in Xinjiang Uygur
Autonomous Region is the longest ever found in Asia, measuring
35 meters in length
The Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and
Paleoanthropology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences confirmed on
TV on August 26 that the dinosaur fossils found in the city of Lingwu
include the skull of a diplodocus, the first ever to be unearthed
The small-headed diplodocus was the largest
dinosaur ever discovered and among the longest land animals that
was ever known to live. It measures about 27 meters long with an
8-meter-long neck and a 14-meter tail. Living in the late Jurassic
and early Cretaceous periods approximately 150 million years ago,
diplodocus was a huge plant-eater that traveled over 1,000 kilometers
to search for food. Its fossils, mainly found in the American continent
and Tanzania, had never before been found in Asia. Those unearthed
in Lingwu belong to a subgroup of diplodocus.
For paleontologists, the most valuable dinosaur
fossil is the skull fossil. Xu confirmed that the dinosaur skull
found in Lingwu is among the best-preserved skulls of a sauropod
dinosaur in the world. The body structure deduced from the unearthed
bones suggests a close affinity between China’s diplodocus
and dinosaur subspecies found in the southern hemisphere.
Tang Zhilu, a researcher with the Institute
of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology, said fossils of
22 dinosaur teeth were unearthed, marking the first time in China’s
dinosaur discovery history that stick-shaped teeth were found in
the skull of a sauropod dinosaur.
Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region is the location
of another site of dinosaur fossils, found in 2004 by a peasant
living in the Nanciwan area. As of August 26 of this year, fossils
of eight dinosaurs have been excavated at the site, making it among
the few oases of sauropod dinosaurs that roamed through China about
160 million years ago. The site, which covers a large area, boasts
even bigger excavation potential.
Dr. Mo Jinyou, who used to study under Xu Xing,
said the fossils found in Lingwu are of a unique character. The
fan-shaped spines on the back of the diplodocuses are much higher
than in previously discovered fossils of this species. “This
could shed light on the studies of diplodocus behavior and the surrounding
natural environment,” Mo said.
Mo said that rock strata at the fossil site
of Nanciwan suggest that dinosaur fossils there formed over a long
period of time after dinosaurs drowned in a huge freshwater lake.
The fact that the area hasn’t gone through major geographical
alterations after the dinosaurs were buried is good news for researchers
of the area’s natural environment of more than 100 million
Xu noted that the fossil findings in Lingwu
are very significant for people studying the body structure, classification
and evolution of sauropod dinosaurs as well as trying to understand
the Mesozoic geography and global geographical distribution of ancient
Scientists believe that the diplodocus appeared
in areas around Lingwu in the late Jurassic period, which was the
heyday of sauropod dinosaurs around the globe. During this period,
dinosaurs ruled the globe as the largest animal, whose diversity
and intelligence surpassed any other species on earth. At that time,
the world climate was warm. The northern part of China was warm
and humid throughout the Jurassic period, suitable for the diplodocus
and possibly explaining why diplodocus fossils were found in Lingwu.
The era of the diplodocus overlapped with the
period of the plate tectonics. “According to the well known
‘continental drift theory,’ the earth’s crust
slowly drifted atop a liquid core to form the current continental
structure at the end of the Triassic and during the early Jurassic
period,” said Xu Xing. “But how the crust started to
drift is still beyond people’s comprehension.”
Xu said that the discovery of diplodocus fossils
in Lingwu might overthrow the popular presumption that the Asian
plate was the first to drift away from the crust.
Mo Jinyou said that the discovery of diplodocus
fossils in China, while supporting the continental drift theory
as a whole, proved the drifting away of Asia could not be as early
as some experts believe.
Meanwhile, Xu concludes that the gathering of
information about the origin, distribution and migration of diplodocus
in China still requires further analysis of the fossils unearthed
in China and on other continents and geographical information about
the latest excavation site. The result decides to what extent the
theory of Asia as the first continent to drift away should be challenged,
if at all, and the real reason behind today’s continental
Longest dinosaur neck
Paleontologists in Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, in northwest
China, study a recently uncovered diplodocus fossil, the first
to be found in Asia
“This is the longest dinosaur neck ever
unearthed in the world,” said senior engineer Wang Haijun
of the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthro-pology
at the excavation site of Changji in Xinjiang.
What lay in front of him was an L-shaped cervical
vertebra fossil of a sauropod dinosaur. “The data of fossils
of this dinosaur was transmitted to Beijing, where experts calculated
the length of its neck as 15 meters,” he said. A dinosaur
unearthed in Ohio in the United States set the previous world record
of 12 meters. The projected total length of the Changji dinosaur
is 35 meters.
The excavation site of Qitai, located at the
eastern end of Junggar Pendi Basin, used to be a paradise for dinosaurs.
Experts say the area used to be a lake with a humid climate and
thick foliage, an estimated 180 million to 70 million years ago.
Algae, ferns and mollusks grew on the banks of the lake, which was
surrounded by swamps, offering an ideal living environment for dinosaurs.
When later a cataclysmic event triggered the
extinction of the dinosaurs, the forests and lakes vanished and
animals were buried deep in the earth. Since the 1920s, a handful
of dinosaurs have been unearthed here in a 2-square-km area, including
the world’s second largest dinosaur fossil. Scientists see
this area as a dinosaur-rich region that in ancient times boasted
a large variety of species. Fossils of at least 200 dinosaurs are
said to be still buried in the area, and possibly among them undiscovered
Although the recent excavation produced the
record-breaking largest dinosaur in Asia, experts lament the failure
to find a fossilized sauropod dinosaur skull. They had hoped to
create a dinosaur discovery sensation by finding the skull of such
a huge dinosaur.
Prior to the recent expedition, four complete
dinosaur skulls had been unearthed in Xinjiang, all of which were
of carnivorous dinosaurs. One reason for the difficulty in finding
a skull of a sauropod dinosaur is that the skulls of herbivorous
dinosaurs are much more fragile than those of carnivorous dinosaurs.
According to Wang, there are two reasons for
the failure to find a complete skull. One is that the skulls were
flushed away by water, he said. The other possibility is that the
skull fossil is buried deeper than the cervical vertebra fossil,
meaning that one could be unearthed in the next stage of excavation.
Why no eggs?
During the excavation in Qitai, experts have
tried to dig up dinosaur eggs, but so far to no avail. No dinosaur
egg has been unearthed in Xinjiang.
Different from other egg-laying creatures, some
kinds of dinosaurs laid eggs and left them to hatch unattended.
Scientists at the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology
say there are three possible reasons for this lack of eggs found
in the Xinjiang region. First, perhaps all the dinosaur eggs hatched,
leaving none to fossilize. Second, the climate in the region wasn’t
suitable for the hatching of dinosaur eggs and so the dinosaurs
laid eggs in other areas. Third, while all the fossils in this area
are from the Jurassic period, the found fossilized dinosaur eggs
belong to the Cretaceous period, when frequent geographical movements
made it difficult for these eggs to hatch.
One minority opinion at the Institute of Vertebrate
Paleontology and Paleoanthro-pology is that a small animal living
at the end of the dinosaur age lived by eating dinosaur eggs. Perhaps
this animal, which reproduced at a high rate, ate up all the dinosaur
eggs, leading to the extinction of dinosaurs in Qitai.