A new generation of paleontologists are finally bringing dinosaurs back to life in China
Xu Xing remembers receiving his acceptance letter from Peking University (PKU)—along with his assigned major, paleontology. He had always wanted to be a scientist, a big dream for a boy from the foothills of Xinjiang’s Tianshan Mountains.
“I didn’t know what paleontology meant, so I asked my teacher, who also didn’t know, and suggested that it might be a cutting-edge field,” Xu now laughs. “You can imagine my disappointment when I realized that I would be studying fossils hundreds of millions of years old.”
Today, Xu’s office at the Chinese Academy of Sciences is filled with fossils—crammed on tables, bookshelves, and even the floor, with the exception of a carefully constructed path from the door to his desk. As Xu walks by, he picks up these priceless items without a second thought; he’d dug most of them out of the dirt himself.
In fact, Xu has discovered over 70 new prehistoric species, the most of any living paleontologist in the world. He has the nickname “China’s Dinosaur King”; staff at London’s Natural History Museum have called him “the go-to man in China for anything people want to know about dinosaurs.”
Piquing their desire to know, though, is another matter. Against headlines about futuristic technologies such as gene-edited babies, straddling buses, and artificial “moons,” paleontology is often overlooked in China.
Yet some of the most revelatory recent discoveries about dinosaurs have been from China, and there are hopes that paleontology is set for a major boost from a new generation eager to understand their prehistoric past.
One reason why China now appears to be a hotspot for dinosaur discoveries is simply because most easy-to-excavate fossils from North America and Europe have already been unearthed. Equally important is China’s diverse geography: Specimens have been discovered in 21 of China’s 34 provinces and autonomous regions. These range from the Early and Middle Jurassic hotbeds of Yunnan, Sichuan, and Guizhou, to the Cretaceous mother lode of Liaoning; the discoveries span periods of 200 to 66 million years ago.
Not all bones become fossils, nor are all fossils discovered; sedimentary rocks must stay close to the surface to be unearthed. But China’s housing and infrastructure boom has caused bones to be unwittingly uncovered at an astonishing rate. This has been a mixed blessing—the law requires these discoveries to be reported, which can delay or suspend a project indefinitely, incentivizing many developers to ignore or destroy them.
At the same time, important sites have been discovered by developers who did the right thing. In 2016, builders halted construction on an apartment complex in Yanji, Jilin province, after discovering a 100-million-year-old cache. Last year in Jiangxi, a construction crew stumbled upon a nest with over 20 oviraptor eggs dating back 130 million years.
The payouts from discoveries can vary wildly; insignificant fish fossils can trade hands for 100 RMB on the black market, while developers get nothing for turning their finds over to the authorities. While Xu suggests that offering rewards for real-estate developers would be the optimal solution, this comes with its own dangers. Where villagers once boiled up “dragon bones” they found to make medicinal soup, some now fake discoveries to supplement their meager incomes, or (even worse, in scientists’ eyes) modify real fossils to make finds appear more valuable: One infamous hoax, which Xu helped expose, involved grafting the tail of a microraptor onto a bird fossil.
Many fossil-buyers are private collectors, who lack the know-how to determine the true value or integrity of their purchase. Furthermore, these collectors buy at their own risk, as ambiguously worded laws prohibit both for-profit and private collections.
As paleontologists are few and far between, Xu optimistically argues that cutthroat capitalism can actually help them: Villagers can play important roles in new discoveries—such as the enormous cache of bones, resulting from some unknown cataclysm, uncovered by farmers in Zhucheng, Shandong, in 2008; their discovery led Xu to identify a new species of herbivorous beaked dinosaur.
Meanwhile illicit private collections at least keep discoveries in the country. Previously, many were sold illegally overseas; in 2008, Australia returned 1,300 smuggled fossils to China, some of which dated back 450 million years.
One person familiar with the growing worth of this dinosaur market is Zhao Chuang, a scientific illustrator who co-founded Beijing-based artist group PNSO, which specializes in making life-size replicas of dinosaurs for a growing number museums and exhibitions. Although knowledge is on the rise, Zhao observes that public interest in dinosaurs is still quite low: “One of the world’s most exciting recent paleontological discoveries—that dinosaurs had feathers—was in China. Yet at least 80 percent of Chinese don’t know this.”
Zhao is referring to yet another one of Xu’s revelatory finds: the microraptor zhaoianus, discovered in Liaoning province in 1999. Often described as the missing evolutionary link between dinosaurs and birds, the microraptor had wings, as well as feathers on its legs and feet. Xu claims that the discovery of this “four-winged dinosaur” made a difference to how artists like Zhao now portray them. Before, dinosaurs were drab and scaly; now they are colorful and fluffy.
Although Xu agrees that while public interest in paleontology remains low, it is, at least, growing. “The first talk I ever gave about dinosaurs [was] in the 1990s. Even counting me and the organizer, there were only seven people there,” he recalls. “Now, I go to speak at an event and there are hundreds…parents bring their children.”
In fact, Xu’s office is full of fanciful drawings from his young fans, and he has nurtured their interest, giving child-friendly lectures around the country and publishing a textbook with the People’s Education Press, read by millions of fourth-graders each year. “It was the most important publication of my life by far—more than scientific papers, that is for sure,” he says.
One of Xu’s desires is to see more people going into paleontology out of a love of the subject, bringing a new passion and enthusiasm to the field. “For me, my career was almost like a traditional arranged Chinese marriage,” Xu reminisces. “I learned to love paleontology in time and now I cannot imagine life without it. But that is certainly not how it started.”
As cultural and educational norms change, Xu’s desire might already become a reality. Zhao remembers that he was in elementary school when he first saw a dinosaur in the ubiquitous 1990s children’s encyclopedia 100,000 Whys. Soon he was begging to borrow his cousins’ books on dinosaurs (his own parents couldn’t afford such luxuries), copying the illustrations onto paper torn from used wall calendars.
Zhao was introduced to the internet as a freshman studying graphic design at Shenyang’s Northeastern University. His childhood passion renewed, he started drawing dinosaurs again, this time on his computer. Illustrations he posted on an online bulletin board system attracted the attention of a local paleontologist, who commissioned him to illustrate a new discovery. The result ended up on the cover of the prestigious Nature magazine, launching Zhao’s unusual career as a dinosaur artist.
While he still draws and sculpts new models (see “Jurassic Art”), now with the help of six assistants, Zhao has also jumped into the world of entrepreneurship, designing children’s books and toys. “I didn’t start this with the explicit goal of getting kids interested in dinosaurs,” he explains. “I just wanted to write the book that I wanted to read as a child.”
Dinosaur lover Xue Yifan, now a biomedical researcher at the University of Pittsburgh, understands this all too well. She always felt like an oddity for her passion—she was the only paleontology major of her class at PKU. When her lonely graduation photo went viral in 2014, she was surprised by how little people knew about her major, and started a Weibo account to answer their questions.
Parental pressure for children to choose “safe” subjects, such as economics, law, or computer science, is one main reason why Xue’s major is unpopular. “I don’t blame them,” she says, adding that she’d want any children she had to enjoy a stable income and high quality of life too. “China will eventually get to a stage in its development where people can freely choose the major or life path they want to take, rather than just follow the mainstream.”
When Xu’s student Yu Yilun told his parents that he was planning to major in paleontology, they were initially skeptical, but not surprised. “I became obsessed with dinosaurs when I was 5 years old after watching Jurassic Park,” Yu recalls, showing photos of his childhood drawings of dinosaurs. Yu sought out Xu, impressing him enough to be invited on an expedition to Inner Mongolia in 2012, even though he was still a high school student. “I was such a beginner then,” Yu admits, “I couldn’t even tell the difference between a fossil and a normal rock.”
Now a PKU senior, Yu has since been on several expeditions and is on the fast track to becoming a lauded paleontologist in his own right, with a burgeoning number of academic publications under his belt. In a 2018 expedition in Zhucheng, Yu even discovered a new species alongside his mentor, naming it anomalipes zhaoi.
“For any dinosaur enthusiast, Zhucheng is a must-go,” Xu gushes. The Shandong city is one of many in China banking on its prehistoric past to propel it out of its backwaters present. Everyone in Zhucheng seems to be on board: There are “Dinosaur City” supermarkets, restaurants, streets, parks, and even a TV tower.
The biggest draw, though, is a UNESCO-recognized Geopark about a 20-minute drive southwest of the city. It was here, around 30-40 meters underground, that Xu investigated the “massive death event” that helped make his name worldwide. It was “probably due to a heavy rain or mudslide. Regardless, a lot of dinosaurs died in a short time frame,” explains Xu. “Because of that, these fossils tell us something special about dinosaurs—about their behavior. We can witness the composition of a herd of dinosaurs and see how they interacted with each other.”
Xu arranges a special visit for TWOC to the Geopark’s ravine, which is closed for renovations until 2021, when it will re-open with a theme park and “footprint museum.” The descent into the 500-meter-long scar, cut 30-meters deep into the earth, is a surprisingly emotional one; along the ravine’s sides are fossils upon fossils. Looking at the remains of their untimely end, one no longer envisages the majestic monsters of childhood fascination, but living creatures, fighting in vain for survival.
If the Geopark is arguably the highlight, Zhucheng still has plenty more to offer. During the Late Cretaceous period, the region had fauna similar to North America, and was home to many dinosaurs not found elsewhere in Asia. Many can be found in the Zhucheng Dinosaur Museum, a slightly aged building stuffed with skeletons. While the museum only sees a light footfall in the bleak winter, the loquacious young attendant at the entrance, well bundled against the cold, claims that during the summer, it isn’t rare for the museum to see 10,000 visitors per day. She points to one of the highlights, a 16-meter-tall skeleton of a Zhuchengosaurus maximus, next to a dusty certificate from the Guinness World Records proclaiming it as the world’s largest hadrosaurid (duck-billed dinosaur) on display.
And one of the city’s greatest discoveries (and namesake) has its own museum—the Zhuchengtyrannus, immortalized in Zhucheng’s Chinese Tyrannosaur Museum. Besides its massive teeth, what makes the Zhuchengtyrannus so noteworthy was that it was the first tyrannosaur to be discovered outside North America. Xu says that discoveries like this one, in 2011, provide invaluable insights into the tectonic shifts that split the continents.
Xu, who was part of the Zhuchengtyrannus discovery team, notes that only the dinosaur’s mandible and a skull fragment have been discovered. He feels that the more significant of his finds was the Yutrannus huali, nearly three full skeletons of which have been dug up in Liaoning since 2012. The discovery proved that these prehistoric reptiles were actually feathered, hence the word yu (羽) in the tyrannosaur’s name.
Xu admits that he is rather addicted to being on digs—to the sense of proximity, as well as the rush of discovery—and brushes off the negatives. “There are always some poisonous insects or spiders. Sometimes, you have to send your colleagues to the hospital for treatment.” On reflection, though, “It used to be worse. When we first started, we rented very cheap cars and got into lots of dangerous accidents. The government has more money for our expeditions, so we now have better cars,” he adds. “In the field, you have to make your own road.”
– Additional reporting by Tan Yunfei (谭云飞)
A Roaring Trade is a story from our issue, “Home Bound.” To read the entire issue, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the App Store.