Building boom uncovers buried dinosaur fossils by chance

China | 25 Oct 2018 4:51 pm

At the end of a street of new high-rises in the northern Chinese city of Yanji stands an exposed cliff face, where paleontologists scrape away 100 million-year-old rock in search of prehistoric bones. The site was discovered by accident.

China’s rapid city building has churned up a motherlode of dinosaur fossils.

Perhaps no one has seized the scientific opportunity more than Xu Xing, a diligent and unassuming standard-bearer for China’s new prominence in paleontology. The researcher has named more dinosaur species than any living paleontologist, racing between dig sites to collect specimens and further scientists’ understanding of how birds evolved from dinosaurs.

Matthew Lamanna, a curator at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, said Xu is "widely regarded as one of the foremost, if not the foremost, dinosaur paleontologist working in China today.”

"Xu Xing is A-M-A-Z-I-N-G,” Kristina Curry Rogers, a paleontologist at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, wrote in an email.

Two years ago, Xu’s colleague at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing, Jin Changzhu, was visiting family in Yanji when he heard talk of fossils uncovered at a construction site. A preliminary inspection yielded what appeared to be a dinosaur shoulder bone.

Less than an hour’s drive from the North Korean border, the midsize city has been erecting residential blocks quickly. Seen from a plane, Yanji looks like a Legoland of new pink- and blue-roofed buildings, but there’s one long empty lot of exposed rocky hillside — the excavation site.

When Xu arrived at Yanji, he recognized the site could fill gaps in the fossil record, noting the relative paucity of bones recovered from the late Cretaceous period, which was around 100 million years ago.

The site has yielded partial skeletons of three ancient crocodiles and one sauropod, the giant plant-eating dinosaurs that included some of the world’s largest land animals.

"This is a major feature of paleontology here in China — lots of construction really helps the scientists to find new fossils,” said Xu.

When Xu and Jin discovered fossils in Yanji in 2016, city authorities halted construction on adjacent high-rise buildings, in accordance with a national law.

"The developer was really not happy with me,” said Xu, but the local government has since embraced its newfound claim to fame.

Xu is quick to point out the role that good fortune has played in his career.

"To publish papers and discover new species, you need new data — you need new fossils,” he said, adding that finding new species isn’t something a scientist can plan.

"My experience tells me that you really need luck, besides your hard work. Then you can make some important discoveries.”

With digs in Inner Mongolia, Liaoning, Yunnan and other Chinese provinces, Xu patiently oversees excavations, sometimes chiseling for years before he knows their ultimate significance.

While his finds are wide-ranging, much of his career has focused on understanding how dinosaurs evolved into modern birds.

Xu has been at the forefront of research into how dinosaurs evolved feathers and flight. In 2000, he described a curious pigeon-sized dinosaur with four feathered limbs, apparently early wings that allowed the animal to either fly or glide. In 2012, he detailed a carnivorous tyrannosaur , which also had plumage — raising questions about feathers’ original purpose.

Xu now believes that early dinosaur plumage may have played a role in insulation and in mating displays, even before flight feathers evolved. He co-authored a 2010 paper that examined fossilized melanosomes — pigment packets that give rise to color in modern bird feathers — to deduce the likely colors of dinosaur feathers. Some species likely sported rings of white and brown tail feathers; others had bright red plumage on their heads.-AP

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