Why Are There So Many Fossils in China?

The “Home of the Dinosaurs” is still wowing scientists today.


Earlier this summer, archeologists in China discovered a Stone Age figurine of a tiny songbird. The bird is 13,500 years old, the oldest ever found in the country. Until now, it was thought that 3D sculptures were a relatively new invention in East Asia; the second oldest carving—also of a bird—is only 5,000 years old. This is only the latest in a long line of archeological finds from China.

China is a treasure trove of fossils of all kinds, but especially dinosaur fossils. 57 dinosaur species have been discovered in China so far. The fossils are so common that a 10-year-old boy can find a 66-million-year-old dragon egg nest on the banks of a river. The first feathered dinosaur was also found in China in the 1990s. Scientists excavated it in Liaoning, a province in the northeast part of the country. The new species was named Sinosauropteryx, which translates to “the Chinese Dragon Bird.” The Dragon Bird was the first evidence that birds are descended from dinosaurs. Dinosaur fossils are such a booming business that there are 10 natural history museums in Liaoning alone.

So why are there so many fossils in China? The eastern part of the country borders the Ring of Fire, a chain of volcanoes around the edge of the Pacific Ocean. Past eruptions from these volcanoes covered everything in a layer of ash and mud. This layer of dirt cuts off oxygen from the buried bodies underneath so they cannot decompose. The resulting mixture then hardens into rock, perfectly preserving the fossils. Multiple eruptions over millions of years has created layers upon layers of rock. These layers hold a timeline of history.

Liaoning is one such site where the bodies could not decay. The soft tissues of animals were also preserved, muscles and all, along with the skeletons. In some cases, scientists were even able to analyze the stomach contents of dug-up dinosaurs and birds. Some species even had enough full fossils to distinguish between males and females. The abundance of samples unearthed at the site meant that researchers could also identify different traits among the same species. That’s like being able to tell which Neanderthals had blue eyes and which had brown.

Qingjiang, in Jiangsu province, is another of these entirely preserved sites. While Liaoning used to be full of temperate forests and lakes, Qingjiang used to be completely underwater. The fossils found in this marine biome are 518 million years old. More than 20,000 specimens were collected, including never-before-seen worms and jellyfish. Around half of the finds unearthed are thought to be from unclassified species. And work is still being done!

Of course, with such a large supply of fossils, black market sales and forgeries are not uncommon. But every specimen that can be studied by scientists gives clues about the Earth’s curious past. So next time you go to China, visit one of the natural science museums and learn some history. And keep an eye out for new discoveries!


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Erin Dumke

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