A team of enthusiastic paleontologists is
hard at work in China, seeking to
unravel mysteries such as the link between dinosaurs and birds
By TANG YUANKAI
|DIGGING FOR DINOSAURS:
Xu Xing, one of China’s top paleontologists,
digs at an excavation site in Xinjiang
A few days after the excavation
of the largest dinosaur fossil ever found in Asia, Dr. Xu Xing left
the discovery site in Qitai, a county in China’s Xinjiang
Uygur Autonomous Region. He traveled to Wucaii Bay, 100 km away,
to get away from all the excitement and continue with his usual
“I hope to find more dinosaur fossils
so that I can figure out the relationships between them. In this
way we can draft a dinosaur evolution diagram,” Xu said. Dinosaurs
lived for 170 million years on earth and finding out their evolutionary
track is important for decoding many life science subjects.
Xu has found and named 15 new dinosaur genuses,
and is the paleontologist who has discovered the most dinosaur categories
in China. Only 37 years old, he is considered to be one of the most
promising paleontologists of the up-and-coming generation.
In the past five years, Xu has published nine
papers in the internationally famed magazine Nature and these articles
are often cited by international research journals. In 1999, his
research work registered 37 citations in the Science Citation Index
(SCI), a greater achievement than his predecessors.
However, Xu wasn’t always driven toward
dinosaurs. “I held no interest in dinosaurs at all in my college
years,” he confessed. He received a master’s degree
from the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology
under the Chinese Academy of Sciences after graduation from the
Geology Department of Peking University. “I feel lucky to
have had the chance to study in this institution and get to know
so many prestigious scholars. After that I started down the road
of dinosaur research.”
Despite dominating the earth for such a long
time, dinosaurs haven’t left many fossils due to the strict
conditions necessary for fossils to develop. The fossilization of
dinosaur bones depends on factors such as whether the creature had
hard bones, whether the dead bodies are buried in proper physical
and chemical conditions, and whether the bodies are buried immediately
after death and preserved long enough.
“Few creatures can become fossils and
even fewer can emerge to the surface of the earth, and then fewer
still can get into our hands to be studied,” Xu said.
“We’ve always been worrying that
we might miss excavating a fossil or that the fossils might be ruined
by fossil dealers,” said Xu’s colleague Zhou Zhonghe,
who led a research project that won an outstanding achievement award
from the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
Xu and Zhou spend several months a year at excavation
sites, living under difficult conditions. In the desert in west
China, they have to fetch water from a place that is hundreds of
“On the surface, the information that
fossils carry with them is simple, but after careful study, these
fossils provide important proof of the evolution theory,”
Xu along with other foreign scientists found
fossils of a small carnivorous dinosaur that lived about 160 million
years ago. Deduced to be the forebear of the giant tyrannosaurus,
this kind of dinosaur was given the name Guanlong wucaii. Guanlong
is the Chinese term for a dragon that has a crest on the crown of
its head. The crest is big and full of air. Wucaii is the name of
the place where the fossil was excavated.
Belonging to the tyrannosaurini, a tribe under
the tyrannosaurus genus, Guanlong is much smaller than tyrannosaurus.
According to the fossils, a Guanlong was 3 meters long and 1 meter
tall. The Guanlong wucaii fossils show how the ancestor of the tyrannosaurus
evolved from a small carnivorous animal to a large and ferocious
one. This evolution took some 100 million years.
The discovery of Guanlong wucaii fossils was
accidental. Back in 2002, scientists found two intact dinosaur fossils
in the Jurassic stratum of a riverbed in the Wucaii Bay area. One
fossil was on top of the other, and one had an unusual crest on
its head while the other didn’t. But there were chasms on
the head of the latter and scientists hypothesized that the crest
might have come off from the head.
A research team led by Xu later studied these
fossils and published the research results in that year’s
From dinosaur to bird
Fossilization of dinosaur bones depends on there having
been precise conditions at the time of the dinosaur’s
death, millions of years ago
Tyrannosaurini are considered to have been one
of the most ferocious dinosaurs and studies on them have continued
since the tyrannosaurini were named in 1905. The oldest tyrannosaurini
skeleton found so far is aviatyrannis, which lived 150 million years
ago. Di-Long, which means “king of the dinosaurs” in
Chinese, comes after that, about 130 million years ago. Di-Long
was also found by Xu Xing, in Beipiao City in Liaoning Province
in 2004, and the discovery was the first in the world. As the Di-Long
fossils are more intact than those of the aviatyrannis, Di-Long
has become the most widely recognized oldest forebear of the tyrannosaurini.
However, the recent discovery of Guanlong wucaii
fossils has overturned the theory of Di-Long being the oldest ancestor
of tyrannosaurini, pushing the timeline back 30 million years. As
well, scientists believe that the large tyrannosaurini lived mostly
during the Cretaceous period (80 million years ago) while Guanlong
wucaii lived 160 million years ago. And the bone structure of the
Guanlong wucaii has provided new research directions for studies
about the little-known coelurosauria.
“The crest of the Guanlong is very special,
resembling that of the birds, and this may prove that birds and
theropods evolved from the same ancestor,” said Xing Lida,
a student of Xu.
“Deinonychus actually is not what has
been described in the movie Jurassic Park. In fact they are dinosaurs
with feathers instead of the lizard-like skin as you see in the
movie,” noted Xu.
Xu said he has found evidence of feathers on
the Di-Long fossils. “It’s a decisive discovery that
will prove birds and dinosaurs share the same ancestor.”
The controversy of the origins of birds and
dinosaurs hasn’t ended as the various arguments made by experts
around the world lack sufficient evidence. “Some people just
can’t believe how come the ugly dinosaurs turn into beautiful
birds. The key to this research is to find the evidence that theropods
do have feathers,” Xu said.
In 1996, a batch of small feathered theropod
fossils was discovered. The shape and structure of their feathers
are exactly the same as that of the modern birds, therefore, they
were named zhonghualongniao, with the Latin name sinornithosaurus,
meaning Chinese feathered dinosaurs.
“Fossils that have been found prove that
dinosaurs are good at running, including the 140-million-year-old
archaeopteryx, which is also believed to be a good runner. As a
result, many follow the hypothesis that dinosaurs ran to fly and
began to grow feathers,” Xu said.
But Zhou prefers the assumption of “tree
evolution.” He said that dinosaurs first climbed trees and
jumped from one tree to another. During the process, they began
to grow feathers and develop the ability to fly. “Through
living in trees, dinosaurs improved their body structure and gradually
turned to birds,” Zhou said, adding, “But we have little
evidence for this assumption.”
Comparing the bone structure of archaeopteryx
and deinonychus, Xu pointed out that they have much in common. “There
are at least 100 similarities between them, and many of these similarities
are unique to birds and dinosaurs, which provides good evidence
that birds and dinosaurs are closely related.”
Xu believes that 160 million years ago one dinosaur
turned into the first bird on the earth and that bird finally developed
into the present-day huge bird family. “Birds incubate eggs,
and fossils indicate that dinosaurs also incubate eggs, which means
that birds inherited this behavior from their dinosaur ancestor,”
“Even the structure of dinosaur eggs is
like that of the birds. The resemblances of the bone structure,
incubation behavior and egg structure all prove that birds and dinosaurs
are closely related; in other words, birds evolved from dinosaurs.”
China’s Dinosaur Research
DISPLAY: A 9-meter
tall dinosaur that lived during the late Jurassic period
stands in the dinosaur museum in the city of Zigong, Sichuan
Research about dinosaurs is based on a
variety of fossil and non-fossil records, including body remains,
trackways, and trace remains such as eggs and feces. Dinosaurs
are considered the best evidence for biological evolution.
Their sudden extinction remains a scientific puzzle, and the
impetus for scientists from around the world to discover more.
The first Chinese dinosaur to be named
was mandschurosaurus, discovered in Jiayin County of Heilongjiang
Province in 1902.
Between 1928 and 1931, Chinese scientist
Yuan Fuli led an expedition into the northern part of the
desert in Qitai, a county in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous
Region of China, to find two large dinosaur skeletons. This
was the first such exploration in Asia and it caused a sensation.
The period between 1933 and 1949 saw the
establishment of the foundation work of China’s dinosaur
research, led by Yang Zhongjian. Yang finished his studies
in Germany and returned home in 1928 and devoted all his life
to the study of vertebrate paleontology. Yang is considered
the father of China’s vertebrate paleontology research
as he has fostered a group of dinosaur fossil excavators and
In the early 1950s, Zhou Mingzhen,a geology
scientist, found fossils of dinosaur and their eggs when he
was guiding his students on field work in Shandong Province.
Yang also took part in this excavation.
Later, geologists again discovered an
intact dinosaur fossil in Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region.
In 1959, a joint paleontology expedition
by China and the Soviet Union dug out a large number of Hadrosaurus
fossils and other dinosaur fossils in 1960.
In 1963, the Chinese Academy of Sciences
organized an expedition to conduct a three-year inspection
in Xinjiang. The same year, a 15-meter-long Hadrosaurus fossil,
the world’s largest, was excavated in Zhucheng, Shandong
The year 1979 was a milestone in China’s
dinosaur research history as hundreds of intact dinosaur skeletons
were discovered in the city of Zigong in Sichuan Province.
In 1987 an open field dinosaur museum was built here, the
first in China and Asia.
In 1983, a sauropoda fossil was excavated
by an expedition organized by the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
After reform and opening up, China began
to seek cooperation on dinosaur research projects and formed
expeditions with countries like Britain, the United States,
Canada and Japan. Among these, the China-Canada expedition
has yielded the best results.
Since 1984, six intact dinosaur fossils
have been found, one after another, in Qitai County in the
Xinjiang region by Chinese and foreign researchers.
In 1987, a joint expedition by China and
Canada in Qitai excavated the then largest dinosaur fossil
in Asia, making Junggar Pendi Basin the important base for
Between 2000 and 2002, a China-Germany
expedition inspected the Junggar Pendi Basin and discovered
many animal fossils. After three years of research they found
these animals had lived 160-170 million years ago and they
are of new genuses, different from the ancient vertebrates
in other regions of the world.
Dinosaur fossils were also found in Lingwu,
Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region. In June 2005, Lingwu was listed
as a relic-protection location. This August, fossils excavated
here were identified to be the head of diplodocus.
Also in August, the world’s longest-necked
dinosaur was found in Xinjiang.