China’s building boom has led to another boom ... in dinosaurs
Rapid urbanisation unearths so many fossils that 'China's Indiana Jones' has named 70 new species
Xu Xing, a Chinese paleontologist, is on a roll. This year alone he has discovered seven new species of dinosaur, including one that is 200 million years old – the most ancient specimen he has unearthed so far.
In all, Xu has named more than 70 dinosaurs, more than any other living paleontologist. But his discoveries aren’t just down to long hours at dusty archaeological digs. His success is owed to China’s construction boom churning up fossils as vast cities continue to rise from the ground.
While bulldozers have unearthed prehistoric sites in many countries, the scale and speed of China’s urbanisation is unprecedented, according to the United Nations Development Programme.
Xu spends his time racing all over the country following leads from the building boom, earning him the moniker of “China’s Indiana Jones”.
“Basically we are reconstructing the evolutionary tree of life,” he says. “If you have more species to study, you have more branches on that tree, more information about the history of life on Earth.”
The population of Chinese cities has quintupled in 40 years, to nearly 900 million. By 2030, one in five city dwellers in the world will be Chinese. Whole new cities are being planned to alleviate pressure in some of China’s biggest metropolises, as urban sprawl continues to spread in major city clusters in Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei and the Yangtze River and Pearl River deltas.
This is all music to Xu’s ears, whose celebrity as a world-leading scientist continues to grow. One of his latest finds, from a construction site in Jiangxi province, will shed light on how modern birds’ reproductive systems evolved from dinosaurs.
His work has attracted attention from schoolchildren in many countries, who mail him handwritten notes and crayon drawings of dinosaurs, several of which hang in his Beijing office.
Toru Sekiyu, a paleontologist from the Fukui Prefectural Dinosaur Museum in Japan, who assisted on the Yanji dig, called his Chinese colleague “a superstar paleontologist”.
Embracing new technology, his team also uses CAT scanners to study the interior of fossils and builds 3D computer simulations to make inferences about what range of motions a dinosaur may have had.
Xu’s previous discoveries have included the 8m-long gigantoraptor, which would have towered over humans today, and the microraptor, a tiny, four-winged dinosaur weighing about 1kg. His most revolutionary work has been in excavating fossils of feathered dinosaurs, providing evidence to back the once-controversial theory that today’s birds evolved from the prehistoric creatures. Experts had kicked the idea around for more than a century, but it remained a theory until 1996, when farmers stumbled upon the first feathered dinosaur in northeast China. The 125-million-year-old sinosauropteryx, the Chinese lizard bird, had bristle-like structures running down its back and tail.
Xu, 49, and his colleagues rushed to search for more feathered specimens, finding the beipiaosaurus in the city of Beipiao the following year. Evidence of rainbow plumage on these ancient creatures was a departure from the typical Hollywood depiction of dinosaurs as cold-blooded and scary.
“It totally changed your idea about dinosaurs,” he said. “Dinosaurs are really colourful animals ... they are so beautiful.”
New finds give Xu the opportunity to be creative, he says, coming up with species names inspired by Chinese culture, such as the Mei Long (“sleeping dragon”), the Dilong Paradoxus (“emperor dragon”), and the Nanyangosaurus, named after a city close to its origins that is also the home town of a famous military strategist in Chinese history.
When Xu discovered fossils in Yanji, an hour from the North Korean border, in 2016, city authorities halted construction on adjacent high-rise buildings, in accordance with a national law. “The developer was really not happy with me,” he said, but the local government has since embraced its newfound claim to fame. The city is now facilitating Xu’s work, and even built an on-site police station to guard the fossils from theft.
Once the excavation is complete, a museum is planned to display recovered fossils and photographs of Xu’s team at work.
– © Telegraph Media Group Limited