Thursday, May 27, 2010

Cromercrox In China: The Figured Stones of Chaoyang

I have been deluged by a request from a Dr S. S. of Lüneberg for more pictures from my visit to China - of fossils, I assume. Now, one can't just assail one's readers (either of them) with random fossils. One must have a story, a context. Happily, I have one to hand.

During my two-day excursion to western Liaoning Province in the company of colleagues Dr Zhou Zhonghe, Dr Ni Xijun and Dr Yu Xiabo from the Institute of Vertebrate Palaeontology and Palaeoanthropology (IVPP) in Beijing, we visited - as has been mentioned - the city of Chaoyang. On the outskirts of that town is a truly magnificent and brand new museum of palaeontology, set in a large park. We went to explore.

The first thing that greets you is an enormous, swooping gateway - so enormous that one first assumes it is the museum.  Here it is, from inside the museum grounds, as it were. (Something I never quite got used to - everything in China - but everything - is conceived on a stupendous scale).
A few animatronic dinosaurs and dino-birds are scattered about the park. These roar menacingly as one passes.
 An animatronic dinosaur. Roaring menacingly. Recently.
In this picture, Dr Zhou Zhonghe ignores the menacing roar from a not-very-good animatronic rendition of the extinct bird Yanornis. Dr Zhou can afford to do this, as he was one of the people who described the species in the first place. But the animatronics are, literally, a sideshow. Elsewhere in the park is a concrete-and-glass pavilion which covers something much more real - and much more breathtaking - an excavation, in which a chunk of ground has been removed to reveal the fossil wonders that underlie not just this museum, but enormous swathes of the region. This is what this pavilion looks like from the inside:
It can't be emphasized enough that this isn't a model - it's the real thing. It's not a plaster and simul-creteTM mock-up of an exposure from somewhere else. This is a slice of Liaoning fossil beds, in situ, straight outta the Lower Cretaceous. It's real. As real as the skeletons of fossil birds, dinosaurs, fishes and plants that litter the floor wherever you look, casually pointed out for our stupefied perusal. Oh look, here's one, a fossil bird, Cathayornis ...
and, what do you know, here's a fish and a plant, almost as well preserved as had they died yesterday (well, last week, maybe).
It's hard to grasp, but the fossil riches of the early Cretaceous world cluster thickly just a few meters beneath one's feet over hundreds, if not thousands, of square miles of this part of China.

But wait - there's more. We've yet to enter the museum itself. Here is its imposing façade. See if you can spot the word for 'fossil' in the signage.
This is a biggish sort of museum. And, on display, in room after room, is a collection of fossils just from this region of a quality and variety that speaks of insouciant braggadocio - any one of these specimens would be the pride of any self-respecting national collection. And yet, here, in a provincial museum on the outskirts of a smallish city, is palaeontological wealth beyond the dreams of the most avaricious Victorian collector. So - and this is for you, Dr S. S. of Lüneberg - let's look at some fossils.

First of all, the plants are lovely. Not just the odd leaf, but whole plants, including fruiting bodies and flowers.
The rocks of Liaoning hold the earliest known good records of flowering plants in the world.
 There are lots of invertebrates (crustaceans, insects)...
... a plethora of fishes ...
... turtles ...
 ... extinct lizard-like reptiles called choristoderes ...
... quite a number of collapsed umbrellas pterosaurs ...
 ... plenty of birds ...
 ... and, of course, dinosaurs.

Nor is this museum short on interpretive models, especially of feathered dinosaurs, which are far more convincing than the animatronics outside...
And the fossils just keep on arriving. As we were leaving the museum's main building, two trucks pulled up to disgorge a haul of beautiful fossils - recently confiscated, we were told, from the private collection of a corrupt official.
 This haul, which is far from unique, comprised 132 boxes, including -- picked at random -- this lovely specimen of the fossil bird Confuciusornis. Just look at the detail of these tail feathers.
As if to emphasize the unbelievable abundance of the fossils of this region, the museum doesn't contain just one or two scraps of fossilised wood, or even a couple of logs, but get this - an entire petrified forest.
Kinda just - gets you - doesn't it?


  1. Thank you Henry for giving us the opportunity to learn more about the world prehistoric of these places as far as China is an great and interesant country.

    Ah, also their great chickens pollos.

  2. Oh goodness, thank you so much - amazing!! I am even more jealous now. (But the one model bird - the pink one - looks a bit like something out of Sesame Street, doesn't it?)

  3. Sorry the turkey`s, with apple compote is good..

  4. Is interesting to think that dinosaurs and birds lived and shared similar habitat, him but probable is that feathered dinosaurs and birds have a common ancestor, but are lineages totally different (Birds and feathered dinosaurs), sure!.

    ....and your: ¿what do you think?

  5. Those turtles are amazing. How could they have been so perfectly preserved - I suppose it must have been sudden. I always think that about ripples too. How are some are preserved, why didn't the tide come in and obliterate those particular ones as it did to the ones before them and after them.

    That last one of the dinosaurs is wonderful too - the way it is curled round, really quite beautiful.

  6. WOW! So cool! (Although I did think exactly the same thing as Steffi about the pink dinosaur :) )

    With the slice through the fossil beds: any idea if they X-rayed or otherwise imaged the area to find the best spot to slice through? Or did they just get lucky? Or is it all just as densely packed as in that one spot? It looks just incredible.

  7. Cath - once you know the stratigraphy, you can dig pretty much anywhere and the fossils just turn up. They aren't just lucky finds - these things are mined commercially. There is a street in Chaoyang city that's wall-to-wall fossil shops. What amazes me is that 20 years ago, fossil birds were incredibly rare. There were only about 6 specimens of Archaeopteryx in the world, each one the crown jewel of the museum in which it resided. Nowadays you can barefly move for specimens of the bird Confuciusornis - there are thousands of them, beyond count, and many of them show a degree of preservation that makes Archaeopteryx look rather austere.