China’s Dinosaur Hunters

At the Guardian, Tania Branigan profiles dinosaur hunter Xu Xing and describes ground-breaking fossil discoveries at digs around China.

Zhucheng’s early Cretaceous relics, Liaoning’s feathered dinosaurs and Xinjiang’s wealth of Jurassic material are among the Chinese treasure troves reshaping our understanding of ancient life on Earth, and the processes that have created the world around us. “Some of the new material from China is breathtaking,” said Dr Paul Barrett, a palaeontologist at the Natural History Museum. “Firstly, the sheer number of new species is impressive. Secondly, some of the dinosaurs that have been discovered have had major impacts on evolutionary debates.”

Local legend in Zhucheng tells of battling black and white dragons: tales rooted, perhaps, in the mighty jaws and femurs found by farmers. For years, residents boiled the “dragon bones” in medicinal soups or ground them into powder.

Excavations began here in the 60s and their pace has dramatically accelerated in recent years as China has poured vast amounts of money into scientific research. More than 50 tonnes of dinosaur fossils have emerged from 30 sites around the town. One remarkable 500-metre-long bone bed has yielded more than 15,000 items. Another site is pitted with 3,000 footprints.

Making sense of it all are dinosaur hunters such as Professor Xu Xing and his colleagues at the Institute of Vertebrate Palaeontology and Palaeoanthropology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences. Xu has identified more than 30 dinosaurs and co-authored papers naming another 20 or so. “I would say I am one of the luckiest people in the world because I have continued finding great species. That makes you even more addicted; it’s like smoking,” he confided.

Accompanying the article is a gallery showing some of the bizarre creatures whose remains have been found in China. (“We did not make these creatures up,” Branigan claims …) The unfamiliarity of the artists’ impressions comes in part from the bright feathers covering most of the dinosaurs, which contrast with the reptilian scales in traditional depictions. These feathers have been a focus of Professor Xu’s work. A post on the Guardian’s “Notes & Theories” science blog from late last year discussed the outdated perception of “naked dinosaurs”:

While walking through a natural history museum gift shop a few years back, I spotted a plush Velociraptor among the piles of dinosauriana. Frankly, it looked pretty stupid. Covered in a soft, fuzzy coat of faux-feathers, it lacked the reptilian menace of the predatory dinosaurs I remembered from my youth. This theropod looked more likely to cuddle someone to death than sink its hyperextendable toe claws into its hapless victim. Surely the feathers were just speculation based on the close relationship between some dinosaurs and birds? Velociraptor never would have looked so silly ….

Some might prefer their favorite dinosaurian predators to have looked just like their depictions in Jurassic Park, but the truth of the matter is that we now know otherwise. In fact, in 2007 it was found that the arms of Velociraptor had little round knobs which would have been anchors for long arm feathers, and the discovery of an early cousin of Tyrannosaurus coated in fuzzy feathers named Dilong [“Emperor Dragon”, one of Professor Xu’s discoveries from Liaoning] means that even the most imposing predator of the Cretaceous may have been covered in feathers during at least part of its life. It is no more fantastic to restore feathers to these dinosaurs or their coelurosarian relatives than it is to depict our hominin ancestors as being covered in hair. It requires an evolutionary perspective to see, but today there is simply no excuse to depict a coelurosaur without feathers.