Why are Chinese dinosaurs special?

16 July 2008

From a massive bird-like dinosaur nearly twice the height of a man, to a smaller dinosaur with fully developed modern feathers, China is revealing more and more spectacular dinosaur fossils.

Fossil hunters, such as dinosaur expert Xu Xing, are uncovering some of the world's most important dinosaur finds. Many of them are winged and feathered and give us clues about the origin of birds and how flight and feathers evolved.

Scientists at the Natural History Museum have studied many types of dinosaur fossil finds. They have revealed evidence for things such as how the oldest known bird, Archaeopteryx , had the power of flight, and how some dinosaurs looked after their young in creches.

Dinosaur expert at the Museum, Paul Barrett, has just returned from China and explains why the finds from China are so important.

'The often stunning dinosaur fossils being found in China are offering huge amounts of new information on several dinosaur groups, in particular those that are close to the origin of birds: they are helping to close several long-running and acrimonious debates.'

Right type of rocks

China has an abundance of rocks that are the right age and type to reveal fossils. The deposits date from the Mesozoic Era between 250-65 million years ago, a time also known as 'The Age of Dinosaurs'.

Sparse and vast

Large areas of China are sparsely populated and, combined with vast landscapes with little vegetation, make fossils easier to find. The exposed land is also constantly being weathered allowing new fossils to emerge.

China's Indiana Jones

Palaeontologist Xu Xing has been described as China's Indiana Jones. He has uncovered 30 new species in the last 15 years and is the most prolific namer of new dinosaur species alive today.

'Xu Xing has become one of the world's leading dinosaur experts,' says Barrett.

'He is a great fieldworker and adept at spotting new and interesting specimens, a talent coupled with an excellent knowledge of dinosaur anatomy'.

Bird-like dinosaurs

Some of the spectacular winged and feathered specimens were discovered by Xu. Gigantoraptor was a massive bird-like dinosaur that weighed more than a tonne. Its fossils were discovered in 2007. Microraptor (pictured above) was a smaller dinosaur with fully developed modern feathers.

The first bird?

Archaeopteryx was a small insect-eating bird with feathers and dinosaur-like features such as teeth and clawed hands. It is the first known bird, living around 147 million years ago during the Upper Jurassic period.

These winged and feathered dinosaurs are close to the ancestry of today's birds.

Looking forward

'China is making a vast contribution to palaeontology and this is set to continue for many years,' says Barrett.

'My Chinese colleagues find new and exciting localities every year and train more and more students in the field. They are certainly some of the world-leaders in this area of science.'

Nature Live events with Paul Barrett

Paul Barrett will be joining the Museum's Nature Live team for 2 free events this week to discuss the Chinese dinosaurs. The events are open to the public on Thursday 17 July at 12.30 and Saturday19 July at 12.30 and 14.30.

  • by Yvonne Da Silva
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