Land of the Scary Dragon

Monday, August 8, 2011

Inside an air hangar in the middle of the countryside in China’s Shandong province, 600 kilometers southeast of Beijing, paleontologist Xu Xing is absently watching a tipsy, red-faced tourist. The man has taken off his shoes and plopped down for a photo in front of the fossilized femur of a gigantic hadrosaur—a duck-billed dinosaur that roamed the earth 99 million years ago during the late Cretaceous period. The bone is nestled in a pile of gold fabric and stands about 1.5 meters tall. A sign in Chinese encourages visitors to give it a poke. “Rub, rub a dinosaur bone,” says the ditty, evoking a common local belief that stroking dinosaur bones can bring good fortune.

Chinese paleontologists have handled a lot of fossils in recent years—the field is flush with new finds in Central Asia. Zhucheng, where Xu does fieldwork, is home to the country’s freshest and most spectacular quarry of skeletons. In a trench not far from the hangar, large fossilized bones are scattered across the surface of the sandstone rock, mixed up haphazardly in a way that suggests a mega-catastrophe happened here nearly 10 millennia ago.

The trove of fossils at Zhucheng is probably the largest single deposit of dinosaur bones in the world. And it’s just the latest in a string of spectacular discoveries by the 42-year-old Xu, who’s arguably helped uncover more important finds than any other dinosaur hunter on the planet. “I am quite certain that Xu Xing has described more new kinds of dinosaurs than anyone in the history of dinosaur paleontology,” says Peter Dodson, professor of paleontology at the University of Pennsylvania and coeditor of the book The Dinosauria. While Xu forgets precisely how many new species he’s discovered, he believes he’s at “around 30.” In the last 15 years, Xu has contributed to the discovery of feathered dromaeosaurs in Liaoning, theropods in Xinjiang, and the ostrichlike Sinornithomimus in Inner Mongolia—all of 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 an awful lot 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 dinosaurs from the late Triassic (228 million to 199.6 million years ago), late Jurassic (161.1 million to 145.5 million years ago), and late Cretaceous periods (99.5 million to 65.5 million years ago), scientists were finding little in between. China, Hone says, is helping to fill in the gaps in the timeline of dinosaur development and in their geographical movements. Similarities between species in North America, Asia, and Europe can help scientists trace dinosaur migration across land masses that no longer exist. Discoveries in Liaoning and Xinjiang are also helping scientists unravel the evolution of modern-day birds, a lineage Xu believes begins with dinosaurs. One of Xu’s most recent discoveries, the chicken-size Xiaotingia zhengi, is giving scientists cause to rethink the classification of the Archaeopteryx, long considered the oldest-known bird. The Xiaotingia zhengi, Xu argues, provides evidence that both species were, in fact, feathered dinosaurs, not full-fledged birds.

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