What is a fossil? Our word ‘fossil’ comes from the Latin verb fodere, which means ‘to dig’. A fossil, therefore, is something that’s dug up. This is a somewhat vague definition, as it could apply equally well to the bone of a mammoth as to as anything that Canis Croxorum might unearth here at the Parc Zoologique Des Girrafes.
Canis croxorum, fodering. Some time ago, when we still had grass.
Once upon a time, however, fossils fell into that class of object known as ‘figured stones’ – objects that were obviously rocks, but which bore signs of past life, or, perhaps, future portent. The Chinese word for fossil is huà-shi – literally, transformed stone. Here it is in the window of a fossil store in the town of Liaoyang, in western Liaoning Province, a few hours drive north-east of Beijing:
Western Liaoning is built on fossils. It oozes fossils. Fossils practically jump out at you. There are dinosaurs for road signs, and fossils are a matter of civic pride. The city of Chaoyang – another of those cities in China of which you have never heard, even though it has a population of 428,000 – has a brand new museum crammed with fossils, any one of which would be the pride of any national fossil collection.
Why is this?
Back in the late Jurassic and early Cretaceous Periods, this part of the world was a volcanically active region whose rivers, lakes and surrounding countryside hosted a rich flora and fauna. The frequent volcanic eruptions, and the occasional outpourings of toxic fumes from the lakes, made for a very fossil-friendly combo – a Mesozoic Pompeii in which a wide variety of creatures was abundantly preserved. Not just bones, but soft tissues, too. Here, at the Sihetun quarry site in Liaoning,
… you can pick up, within only a few minutes of searching …
Dr Zhou Zhonghe, Dr Yu Xiabo, and Your Humble Host, at the Sihetun Quarry. Image courtesy of Dr Yu.
… beautifully preserved fossils of fishes and insects. With a little more diligence, one can find plants, pterosaurs, dinosaurs and birds – often complete with feathers. A museum at the site presents a selection of the treasures unearthed at this one quarry, and the tale is repeated in Chaoyang’s museum, the fossil shops of the area, and in any number of nooks and crannies.
Fossils have been found here for decades, but it is only in the past twenty years or so that spectacular fossils of birds and dinosaurs have come to light. These fossils have fundamentally changed our conception of what life was like in the Age of Dinosaurs, and has shifted the focus of fossil-hunting decisively towards China.
Rumour of the fossil treasures of western Liaoning first reached mes oreilles in the mid-1990s, when Nature started publishing papers about remarkably preserved fossil birds. My host, Dr Zhou Zhonghe, now the Director of the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology in Bejing, was at that time a graduate student in Kansas, and a coauthor on one of the first papers, reporting the fossil bird Confuciusornis, unearthed in western Liaoning. Specimens of this bird and many others previously unknown species – beautifully preserved, with remains of feathers, beaks, claws and even stomach contents – were soon discovered in their hundreds. It’s worth reminding oneself of the shock value of these finds. Back in the 1990s, fossil birds were unbelievably rare, and the best preserved was still Archaeopteryx, first discovered in Bavaria around the time that Darwin’s Origin was published, and only a handful of specimens of which had been discovered in the succeeding century and a half. The ‘London Specimen’ of Archaeopteryx is the prize jewel in the crown of the collections in the Natural History Museum in London. Yet now, one can walk into a provincial Chinese museum and see literally dozens of fossil birds, any one of which has the potential to yield at least as much information about the life of prehistoric birds as Archaeopteryx has.
The dragons were next. It was at an annual meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, held at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City in (I think) 1996, when at a coffee break I noticed a Chinese researcher passing round a much-thumbed snap of a feathered dinosaur – to much general consternation.
The researcher was Dr Chen Pei-Ji of the Nanjing Institute of Geology and Palaeotology, who was not in fact a vertebrate palaeontologist – he was (and still is) interested in the small fossils of water-fleas that are found in the Liaoning deposits in such abundance that their different forms can be used to pinpoint the stratum whence a particular slab has been quarried. On a sudden, the dinosaur specimen came into his hands, and he’d come to New York to meet a few dinosaur experts who might shed light on this exciting find. I was among the melée. Unaccountably bereft of business cards, I scribbled down my contact details on a piece of gray cardboard I happened to have in my pocket and gave it to Professor Chen. In due course, Nature published the fossil, and Sinosauropteryx exploded onto the public stage. Casts and copies of this iconic fossil are legion, but in Nanjing I saw the real thing …
Sinosauropteryx, with my host Dr Wang Xiangdong, for scale.
I also met Dr Chen, for the first time since that meeting in New York …
… and when we swapped business cards (I’d remembered to bring some this time), he showed me something else. In his wallet was the same piece of small gray card on which I’d written my contact details all those years ago. It was a small, touching memento of what proved to be a decisive moment in palaeontology, when our understanding of the evolution of dinosaurs and birds was utterly transformed. For Sinosauropteryx was the first of many feathered dinosaurs to come from Liaoning – and I’m pleased to say that a goodly share has been published in Nature. It was, in essence, the reason why I’d come to China.