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China spends billions to study dinosaur fossils at sites of major discoveries

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By Ariana Eunjung Cha
Tuesday, January 26, 2010

ZHUCHENG, CHINA -- What killed the dinosaurs? Scientist Wang Haijun thinks the answer may be buried inside a 980-foot-long ravine in the Chinese countryside 415 miles southeast of Beijing where hundreds of the creatures may have huddled in the final moments before their extinction.

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The fossils here -- more than 15,000 fractured, mangled and blackened bones from about 65 million years ago in the late Cretaceous period right before they went extinct -- support theories of a catastrophe. Global fires. Explosions. Climate change.

"This find is very important for understanding the very end of the age of dinosaurs," said James M. Clark, a paleontologist at George Washington University who has examined some of the fossils.

The excavation here, believed to be the largest dinosaur fossil site in the world, is one of a number of groundbreaking research projects in a country that once shunned science because it was associated with the elites.

As a construction boom sweeps through China, workers digging into the ground and clearing forests for highways and high-rises are inadvertently stumbling upon relics that are rewriting our understanding of the distant past. The Chinese government, which during the Cultural Revolution in 1966-76 was responsible for dismantling scientific research institutions, banishing many intellectuals to farms and systematically destroying historical artifacts, is now throwing billions of dollars into projects in archaeology, historical ecology and paleontology.

For decades, much of the important research into dinosaurs was in the United States, at sites in Utah and Montana. But over the past two to three years, attention has shifted to China, with major discoveries in Zhucheng and other sites.

In northeastern China in March, scientists discovered a new fossil indicating that many dinosaurs may have had featherlike fuzz, which they said suggests a closer relationship between birds and dinosaurs than previously thought. In Inner Mongolia, researchers dug up an entire herd of young, ostrichlike dinosaurs that they said will provide critical insight into how the creatures grew up. And in the desert in the far west, another group found a dinosaur with no teeth, trapped in a "death pit" that once was probably full of mud.

Zhucheng, with miles of gated industrial complexes featuring signs advertising canned food and men's suits, looks like any other factory town aboveground. But underneath this city of 1 million, there's a treasure trove of dinosaur remains, more than 50 metric tons of which have been collected.

They are so numerous here that "fossils can even be found in some farmers' private courtyard areas and next to their houses," said Xu Xing, a paleontologist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences who is one of the lead researchers on the excavation here.

Residents in and around Zhucheng, on China's east coast in Shandong Province, have been digging up "flying dragon" bones for use in medicinal concoctions for generations. But it took a long time for the state to recognize their value.

Dinosaur researchers "had absolutely no money in the 1990s," said Clark, who has been coming to China to do research since 1991. But by 2002, the government put a stop to people who smuggled dinosaur bones and eggs and sold them. Now, Clark said, "because they are finding so many amazing fossils, the Chinese government is putting a lot of money into it."

As a result, there are more than 30 excavation sites in this area, the largest of which was discovered in 2008 and has been nicknamed the "Dinosaur Stream."

At the time dinosaurs were roaming across China, Zhucheng is thought to have been an area of grasslands submerged under several feet of water.

The researchers theorize that the dinosaurs were killed by the force of an explosion from a volcanic eruption or a meteor impact and then were caught in a flash flood, landslide or even a tsunami that threw them together. Perhaps several such disasters occurred over a period of years.

"It's very hard to understand why there are so many dinosaurs dead in one place," said Wang, the principal technician on the excavation.

The pit has yielded some of the world's largest duck-billed dinosaur specimens, bones of a type of dinosaur that had never been seen outside North America, and at least six new species.

One of the new dinosaurs has a pointy, triangular chin, kind of like a pelican's bill but made of bone. Xu says it is "the strangest creature I have ever seen."

What's even more intriguing is that there are seven distinctive "floors" of dead dinosaurs in the pit. Some of the soil is yellow, other layers are red clay, which Xu said seems to show that "there wasn't just one event. The dinosaur bones are preserved in different layers, suggesting they were killed in several different times," he said.

Local officials are less interested in these mysteries. What they see in Zhucheng are money-making opportunities. Wang Kebai, head of the Zhucheng Municipal Tourism Bureau, has contracted with a U.S. company to draw up plans for a dinosaur museum and park that he and other officials boast will rival Disneyland. He said he expects 2 million visitors a year.

Wang said the potential is so great that the government may order scientists to stop digging and simply put glass around some of the bones in the soil and rocks so that tourists can see them in the state that they were found, rather than in isolated cases in a museum, with signs on them.

"There are so many bones," Wang reasoned. "Not all of them need to be studied."

Researcher Wang Juan contributed to this report.


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