Sunday, 7 November 2010

Chinese dinosaurs ahoy!

Dinosaur fossils are the raw material that keeps the embers of my research gently glowing. if you want a roaring fire, you have to go to China. If there ever was a Klondike-size strike of dinosaur bones, it would be here. I was fortunate enough to visit China for the first time last year with Professor Peter Dodson...a veteran of chasing dinosaurs in this part of the world. While my gastrointestinal tract took a severe beating, I was totally gobsmacked by the shear beauty, number, diversity and quality of fossils.

Dr. Xu Xing (left), yours-truly (centre) Prof. Peter Dodson (right)

Peter and I were lucky to have spent time with Dr Xu Xing from the Institute of Vertebrate Palaeontology and Palaeoanthropology (IVPP) based in Beijing. Xu is a legend in his own right, having named dozens of new species of dinosaur from the vertebrate-rich fossil record of China. He is also one of the most modest and humble scientists I have ever had the pleasure of meeting. At the end of this month I get to see Xu and colleagues again in one of the most amazing places I have ever been, Zhucheng. Here is where dinosaurs clearly came to their hundreds (if not thousands!). The breath-taking Dinosaur National Monument in Utah (which I still think is amazing), pales when compared to the Zhucheng material.

Standing amongst bones on Dinosaur National Monument makes you happy!

The GIANT fossil horizon exposed in Zhucheng is hard to understand...there is simply no simple mechanism for emplacing such vast quantities of bone, without smashing-up the bones in the these bones are beautiful! Its as if a prehistoric burcher has just thrown-out (over several thousand square feet) the butchered bones of the day. We are not talking small animals either, as these are sauropod-sized hadrosaurs! The deposits are mostly comprised of the disarticulated remains of  the hadrosaur Shantungosaurus giganteus, that were first discovered in the early 1960's, but not named until 1973. The site was locally called Longgujian, literally translating as "dragon bone gully"....a very apt name! At a mere 66 feet long (yes, thats 20 metres!) this is a very hefty dinosaur....and its a hadrosaur! This late Cretaceous aged beastie must have been the largest of its kind ever to walk on the planet.

How many museum displays need a car to get from one end to the other?

The deposits have been patiently quarried since the mid-1960's and the result is one of the dinosaur-wonders of the world. Such is the size and sheer gobsmacking nature of the site, the local Chinese authorities had the foresight to leave many of the bones in-situ, so palaeo-geeks such as myself can stand with tear-in-eye, viewing this unique place.

More bone than you can shake a stick at (and thats whats been exposed so far!)

The reason for my trip here at the end of this month is to celebrate the opening of a new Museum in Zhucheng. The new Museum will concentrate on the regions incredible prehistoric surprise there. I also get to work on some of the fossils from the site, but not they have now found dinosaur tracks to go with all those bones. As many of you will no from my past research, tracks have much to tell us about dinosaurs and other extinct beasties.

Playing with dinosaur tracks in Argentina back in 2001

I have to be honest that on my last visit I missed seeing the building of the museum and its contents, a function of something I fact, I missed two days. My friend and colleague Prof. Peter Dodson did not suffer at all from anything eaten on the month-log tour. Rumour has it, his nickname in some quarters is, 'The Badger 5000 Waste-Disposal Unit'....a tad unfair, but I have to admit, I have never seen Peter refuse food...ever!

Too much bone to take-in, even a bit of skull...see if you can spot it?

I shall try and relay the talks that happen at the Zhucheng meeting and also more images of this fantastic site. If you find yourself in China with a couple of spare days...grab a flight south of Beijing to Qingdao (yes, where the beer comes from!) and head a couple hours west to Zhucheng. You will not be disappointed! On top of the stunning geology, lickable fossils and great get to see some of the most amazing sunsets you will ever see in your life.....honest!

Natural photoshop needed here!


  1. This episode was super exciting to see all of those dinosaur bones in China. I'm so glad that you got the chance to view the museum and shared it with us. I was, as you would say, "gobsmacked"; dino bones galore ..... WOW! Absolutely amazing!