A few months ago, paleontologist Jun Liu published his findings of a new species of Turfanodon. Turfanodon was a reptile that lived about 250 million years ago. 

It is remarkable for its broad habitat range, which included both tropical and temperate locales.  He discovered it at Nine Peaks, Inner Mongolia, and calls it Turfanodon jiufengensis

Turfanodon is very interesting to paleontologists, especially since Professor Liu has found a near-complete skeleton. Often, paleontologists are lucky to find so much as a fossilized pinky toe. 

But his findings are only the most recent of a recent trend that is impossible to ignore. Professor Liu serves the Institute for Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing. 

Paleontology has undergone an explosion in recent decades in China. New discoveries are emerging at a rate not seen since the 19th century, when the “Bone Wars” pervaded fossil hunting in the American West. But why is China getting so many discoveries and why now?

A Long History, Interrupted

Paleontology is not new to China. The first serious dinosaur-hunting expedition in China took place in the 1920s, in what is today Mongolia.

 Its leader was Roy Chapman Andrews of the American Museum of Natural History. Andrews discovered Protoceratops and Oviraptor eggs--the first dinosaur eggs ever discovered.

As good as China was for science, it was just as unstable for logistics. The Mongolian Revolution and Chinese Civil War prevented the Americans from returning. 

Then came the Japanese invasion followed by the communist victory and Mao's regime. As a result, Chinese paleontology would languish for 50 years. 

Andrews' expeditions were sponsored in part by the General Motors Company of Detroit. Their Dodge automobiles are displayed in this advertisement. 

Many speculate that Andrews, seated in the center of the frame, at least partially inspired the character Indiana Jones.

Fossil Gold Mine in China

Konservat-Lagerstaetten, German for “Conservation Stockpiles”, are some of the most exciting places in the field of Paleontology. A Konservat-Lagerstaette is a large, diverse and exceptionally well preserved collection of rare organisms. 

They are usually formed when an undersea mudslide engulfs a reef. This will quickly kill and bury the soft-bodied organisms present. 

For organisms with no bones, this is the only way they can become fossilized. 

The Chengjian formation is the most remarkable of these. Two Frenchmen discovered it in 1913, although its true potential was not realized until the 1980s. 

As of the present, thousands of specimens have been found here. Some are well known, such as trilobites. 

Others are bizarre and altogether unlike anything alive today. Among these are anomalocaris and halluciginea.

A species of Trilobite, Eoredlichia intermedia, that was found in Chengjiang.

Anomalocaris was one of the fiercer and more interesting organisms of the so-called "Cambrian Explosion".

Alchetron/Girish Mahajan and fossilmuseum.net

Above is a fossil of the organism Hallucigenia from Chengjiang. Underneath is an artist's depiction of what a living specimen would have looked like some 500 million years ago. This animal is so bizarre that paleontologists could not accurately reconstruct it for some time. 

When they finally did, they still had trouble distinguishing the legs from the spines. This critter was so named because it looks more like a hallucination than an actual specimen.

Chinese Dinosaurs

Liaoning province has proven to be a gold mine for dinosaur bones in recent years. About the time Millenial/Zoomers were born, feathered dinosaurs first emerged here. 

25 years later, Liaoning province has yielded thousands of specimens. Among these are new cousins of dinosaurs such as T-rex and pterodactyl. 

Some call Liaoning “ground zero for the feathered dinosaur revolution”.  It is also home to its own Lagerstaette collection, the Tiaojishan Formation.

The Future

It is noteworthy that today’s discoveries are emerging by and large at the hands of Chinese, not European, researchers. Chapman and his team did great work in their day. 

But it is a mark of progress that these latest discoveries are coming from Chinese scientists at Chinese Universities. Perhaps no one is as qualified as Xu Xing, another researcher of the Institute for Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology. 

Dr. Xu has discovered more species than any other living Paleontologist. There is now an entire field of paleontology dedicated to feathered dinosaurs. Without Dr. Xu, some say it would not exist.

So What?

Dinosaur bones are neat to look at in museums and fun to write about in magazines. This makes it easy to forget that collecting and curating are only the tip of the iceberg. 

It is important to know what the dinosaurs looked like and where they lived. It informs our knowledge of past climate and plate tectonics. There is a wealth of knowledge still buried in China. 

If the next 30 years are as productive as the last, then China will lead the world in new discoveries. The greatest importance of China’s rapid rise is the hope it promises for future discoveries. 

The Chinese have joined the ranks of a previously European-dominated field. The wealth of knowledge still buried in other industrializing parts of the world raises eyebrows. 

This is only speculation, but it seems likely that some day South Asians, Indians and Africans will one day follow suit. Once they do, even these Chinese finding are likely to pale in comparison, making China the moring star of a new revolution in paleontology. 

The bones are buried out there, as yet undiscovered, here in the year 2021, just as they were in China in 1921 and as they were in America and Europe in 1821. All they need is for someone to uncover them.

Title image: Credit to DeviantArt user RAPHTOR.  


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Neil Ryan

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