Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Walking in the footsteps of giants

Where shall I start….I suppose at the beginning. In a gasoline-haze, sat in the back of a ‘taxi’ that had seen better days. Clutching a set of directions to a field, somewhere outside of Zhucheng. Here be dragons…well at least their tracks! The word dinosaur in Chinese literally translates to ‘terrible dragon’. Brandon and I were headed to a locality that has the promise of being one of the single largest dinosaur track site in the world, with over 5000 tracks on a single surface. Martin Lockley, had worked on the lower 10% of the site already, but since his visit last year the whole hillside was now exposed, along with a stunning series of tracks from sauropod to theropod dinosaurs. A veritable ichno-feast…meaning stacks of tracks and traces to study.

The track site has landed!

Brandon and I arrived at the site via a dusty track through a series of cultivated fields, well off the beaten track. Thankfully Brandon has mastered enough Chinese to relay our directions to the site. As we ambled up the hill it was clear that a large ‘spaceship’ had landed…in the form of several tons of scaffolding and plastic sheeting, now covering the precious tracks. On entering the vast ‘tent’ we were greeted by a larger than football pitch-sized rocky outcrop…we immediately spotted dinosaur tracks on the leading edge of the outcrop…and they did not stop!
Brandon walks in the footsteps of dinosaurs
This lower Cretacous slice of Shandong province provides a gimpse into the busy world of the Zhucheng fauna. From tutles to crocs and from predatory to plant-eating dinosaurs, the site records the activity of these animals, where they left their marks over 100 million years ago. Subtle variations in environment spread from one corner of the site to the other, from gentle ripple marks to billiard-table smooth mud-flat deposits. Each bump, groove and hollow relaying important infromation n the distant environments that once persisted here. However, like any geological outcrop, it is hard to absolutely nail the palaeoenvironment from over 100 million years ago…given we only had a tiny (several thousand square feet!) window into this world. It was good to have Professor Martin Lockley (below) along with us a day later to look at the site with us. Martin has spent his life tracking dinosaurs over the world, has written hundreds of papers on the subject and published many books on this topic.
Martin Lockley finds a track or ten!
Over the years Martin and I have gotten to scramble up and down our fair share of cliffs, desert outcrops and coastal sections in various corners of the globe. However, it was the first time that we were both in China at the same time and place. We have decided to work together, also collaborating with Dr Xu Xing of the Institute of Vertebrate Palaeontology and Palaeoanthropology (IVPP) in Beijing,  on the said track site. We both agree that such a vast site requires a touch of the light fantastic…or LiDAR as it is more commonly known!
Brandon needs to loose weight, as he leaves vast bowl-like tracks
Using a Light Detection and Range laser scanner (LiDAR) on the track site will allow us to map the whole locality in a single day. This would usually take us weeks or months. The resulting scan is (if I get hold of the right Z+F LiDAR unit) at sub-millimetre accuracy. Something that is very hard to achieve using traditional mapping techniques. The scan of the site will provide an accurate measure of trackway geometry, size, gaits, speeds, etc. This data will then be used by colleagues in Manchester (Dr Peter Falkingham and Dr Bill Sellers) to make sense of the thousands of tracks and trackways. Martin has already named some new track types from the locality…plus the first ever tutle tracks from China. We hope much more can be plucked from the surface of this ancient ‘sandy mud-flat’.
Stacks of tracks made by theropod dinosaurs....I think!
Some corners of the site look as if a ‘flock’ of theropods made there way across this surface back in the Cretaceous, leaving delicate traces of the soles of their feet. However, many of the tracks are not ‘true’ or surface tracks, but a reflection of the animals foot shape, as the soil failed beneath its feet during track fromation, disturbing lower layers, leaving transmitted tracks that we find today. This explains firstly why they survived…they were already buried…plus why they are not as sharp as we would like. Some folks call these ‘ghost’ tracks…I like that. To ascribe a species of dinosaur to a track or trackway is a dangerous game, unless you find an animal dead at the end of its tracks, your unlikely to identify the species of maker.
Laminated mudstone, overlain by massive sandstone track horizon
We not only took a look at the tracks, but also the geology of the surrounding outcrop. There were two major units exposed associated with the trackway horizons, a lower finely bedded mudstone overlain by a courser massively bedded sandstone unit. Dave Eberth, from the Royel Tyrell Museum (Drumheller, Canada), was with us on the second day we visited the track site. He is a brilliant field geologist and soon buried himself into the stratigraphy and sedimentology of the site. In time, we hope to publish our finding on this remarkable locality.
It was not just the trackways of Shandong Province we had come to see…in nearby slightly younger Cretaceous rocks, is possibly one of the 7 wonders of the dinosaur world; The Zhucheng hadrosaur bone-bed. I had seen this on my last visit to China, but could not wait to oggle this remrakable site again. Having worked at Dinosaur National Monument in Utah last year, I realized that the Zhucheng bone-bed makes the US-monument (which is very impressive), look more like a rockery. The bones of the giant hadrosaur Shantungosaurus litter a gully that has been excavated by the folks in Zhucheng. The originally horizonally lain beds have been uplifted and tilted…a perfect angle to view a lot of bone surface! This excavation was a massive undertaking and has been ongoing since the 1960’s, but few westerners have seen this remrakble site. This particular hadrosaur was of great interest to Dr Paul Barrett (Natural History Museum, London) who was along for this invited meeting of minds in Zhucheng. Paul is probably the worlds leading expert on ornithischian dinosaurs, to which our giant hadrosaur belongs. This type of dinosaur is not unique to China, as its sister group is commonly found in the Late Cretaceous of North America, my old friend Edmontosaurus. However, the Chinese hadrosaur is so much bigger…its trying to be a sauropod dinosaur in terms of bulk! I have been keen to see these giants again, as working with colleagues in Manchester, we hope to learn more about the locomotion of such giants. We will hoepfully get the scan the mount (below) in the Zhucheng Dinosaur Museum. From these scans we will rig muscles onto our virtual giant and put it throught its locomotary paces in the super-computer.
Shantungosaurus...who ate all the pies!
A single femur of this giant hadrosaur (below) is taller than me…ok, I did not exactly jump into the deep-end of the gene-pool when it comes to height…but any femur over 6 feet is impressive! The one below has been assigned ‘magical’ powers by the locals and has been ‘enshrined’ in the Museum…complete with its own mood-lighting. Touch this bone and you shall be very lucky…I already felt very, very lucky just to be there…but I still could not resist touched another bone.
Look at the size of Phil's lucky bone!
We drove up to the excavation, that is no longer under cover, as they are now building a permenant roof over the huge site. Like kids in a candy store we all lept into field mode as soon as we arrived. Dr Paul Sereno (Chicago), Dr Mark Norell (American Museum of Natural History), Martin Lockley, Dave Eberth, Paul Barrett and I all gawped in wonder at the sight before us…as I turned to Mark Norell and said, ‘Its like a bone-bed, only bigger!’.
Paul Barrett sneaks-up behind Martin Lockley at the Zhucheng bone-bed
Dave Eberth is the worlds leading expert on the interpretation of bone-beds was grinning from ear-to-ear at the site…I urge you to read his book ‘Bone-beds’ which is currently my bed-time reading. He has worked for many years on the vast ceratopsian bone-beds of Canada, that have made Dinosaur National Park so famous in the halls of palaeontological fame. Dave has worked for years on the excavation, data collection, mapping and interpretation of the said boney problems…the biggest question here, ‘How do you emplace thousands of beautifully preserved, giant, disarticulated (in the most part) Shantungosaurus bones?’
Xu Xing sits amongst the bones of giants
 Dr Xu Xing (IVPP, Beijing) was also along with us, as it was he who had provided us all access to the Shadong Province sites…incluidng the stunning bone-bed. You can see Xu above sat amongst one part of the vast bone bed. The weird thing about many of the bones, is they are so well-preserved..but not all! Dave Eberth was like a rat up a drain-pipe…scrambling up and down the exposure, not just looking at the bone, but also at the geology. We were all puzzling the emplacment of what Dave called, ‘the mother of all bone-beds’. The bones were encased in mudstone, which when you looked closely hosted a number of smaller inclusions (tiny rocks, pebbles and clasts of other sediment types). The complete lack of structure to the whole muddy-bone-stoked-mess immediately pointed to a very specific causitive process. Dave Eberth grinned and shouted, ‘ This is a bloody huge mud-flow!’…and it seems he is quite right. The rock-type (lithology) almost matched many of the samples Dave was so used to finding in the Canadian bone-bed sites…but the Canadian sites were an order of magnitude smaller than the Zhucheng bone-bed.
Thousands of bones litter the horizon
I headed-off to the top of the gully, as I saw some familier lithologies to those I cut my dino-palaeo-teeth upon on the Isle of Wight. The island just off the South Coast of the UK has similar Cretaceous-aged (albeit Lower) channel sands, overbank mud and flood-deposits to that seen in Zhucheng, but I had not seen a bone-bed of the likes of this on the Isle of Wight. However, I was used to finding fossil soil horizons (or palaeosols) on the Isle of Wight. They are often marked by the growth of distinctive carbonate minerals into what we often call a calcrete horizon. Such soils are indicative of arid environments and here I was, in Zhucheng, looking at a typical calacrete palaeosol. I called over Dave Eberth, who excitedly confirmed what we were looking at. It was clear that Dave had pieced together the geological evidence that would enable the site to be formally described and interpreted. Stunning.
Dave Eberth dismounts the Zhucheng palaeosol
We both scrammbled down from the palaeosol horizon (above) as we were being called by the other members of the team…we were making folks late! The rest of the team were already in the main prep-labs for the site…oggling at vast reconstructions of impossibly big dinosaurs. Its rare that you see Paul Barrett bragging about the size of his skull (below)…but today would be an exception!
I say Paul....what a large skull you have!
After a healthy few days in the field, we knew it was time to eat, drink and be merry. The eating bit was beginning to take its toll on my apetite. Many years ago I worked on arthropod palaeobiology, which included studying the respiratory function in scorpions…I never thought I would get to eat them, again, and again, and again. It seems scorpion is firmly on the Zhucheng menu…bare that in mind when you visit here…which you must!
Scorpions on a stick...going fast...as they were still alive :-(
Not only was their scorpion, but also cicada on a stick…they were not chirpping too loudly. The only sound they had left to make was the crunch as you bit hard through their exoskeleton, only to be greeted by a soft, oozing centre…not quite a box of chocolates!
Cicada on a stick...crunchy on the outside, goopy on the inside.
At the end of the field days, all the experts (Paul Sereno, Paul Barrett, Dave Eberth, Martin Lockley, Mark Norell and I) gathered around the table with local offcials from Shandong Province, inluding the Governor of the province, the Zhucheng mayor, IVPP scientists and many other folks. We sat and talked about the future development (both scientific and economic) of the sites we had seen. It was clear the Province possessed a unique mixture of trackway, bone-beds and even dinosaur eggs (that’s another story to be told!). We, the six visiting scientists, were all asked to contribute to the scientific research and development of the sites…a no-brainer on our part! Methinks the six of us will be regular partakers of deep-fried scorpion in the near future.
As the meeting drew to a close, much had been agreed…most importantly, the sites were being actively conserved and researched. It had been a successul few days deep in Shandong Province…it was time to return to Beijing; time to work with some particularly stunning fossils at the IVPP.
Brandon drools over the fossil of Microraptor

Brandon (above) and I arrived at IVPP on a bitterly cold December day. The Institute is situated opposite Beijing Zoo….which was helpfully remembered when explaining to the airport taxi driver where our hotel was in this vast city of 20+ million people. The IVPP has a pubic museum…a must for any visitor to Beijing, but also its hallowed collections halls...that is where Brandon and I were headed.
We had prearranged to meet with Xu Xing back at IVPP, as he too had flown back from Zhucheng (like us, via Qingdao). Our main objective was to review as many avian theropods as we could…although I would be heading back to the USA a full week ahead of Brandon. The first specimen brought out for us to work upon was that of Microraptor, a bizarre bi-plane of a winged theropod dinosaur from the lower Cretaceous of China. Like many fossils from China, it was beautifully preserved…albeit squashed as flat as a pancake against the rocky bedding-plane that became its tomb.
I have to say that it is the happiest I had seen Brandon all week, when he opened the first silk-clad box (the fossils are housed in beautiful silk boxes).
Mei long....dorsal (top) view
However, it was not to be a flat-pack dino-bird to get my heart racing. It was to be the deliacte 3-dimensional remains of a beautiful avain theropod dinosaur, Mei long. This most perfect, palm-sized fossil is exquisitely preserved. If there were flesh preserved upon the bones, you would be tempted to nudge this sleeping dinosaur awake. The picture above shows a top view of my new favourite fossil…head wrapped from bottom to right of the fossil, with its legs and arms tucked neatly beneath its body, sleeping. It seems likely this animal did fall asleep, but was not woken till the gentle tap of a palaeontologist released it from its geologically-long slumber. Flipping the fossil over (below) you can also imagine this dinosaur gracefully stretching its feet out and wiggling its stony toes, such is the level of preservation. Simply gob-smacking.
Mei long...ventral (bottom) view
I have probably disobeyed the first rule of blogging, by writing a tad too much for a single posting…but I feel I owed it to those folks who follow my ramblings.
Sunset over Beijing
I have now left Beijing on another freezing sunset and am sat on a turbulent flight (did I mention how much I hate flying) to San Francisco. I have been holding-back on a little secret…I have possibly one of the most special fossils in the world meeting me in San Francisco. It is there to get a dose of rapid-scan x-ray fluorescence synchrotron treatment! More on this later. I will leave you with this final thought…visit China not just to see the Great Wall and Forbidden City, make a B-line for the Great Fossils of Zhucheng and the Stunning Fossils of IVPP!


  1. Sounds like an excellent opportunity for you all. I am envious that you got to see Mei long! (Any chance I could see a few more pictures upon your return?)

  2. Meilung is astounding!!! I can not believe the detail. Gastric ribs in place with the rest of the skeleton..... The feet and skull are unbelievable. I am in love.

  3. I agree w/you both; absolutely astonishing. Amazing pictures and I especially like the picture of you, Dr. Manning standing next to your "lucky bone". A--MAY--ZING! (spelt incorrectly on purpose).