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130-million-year-old mammals found in China
China has a number of areas that are rich in dinosaurs bones. Many of the most important discoveries in recent years in the dinosaur field have come from China. Dinosaur bones are so plentiful in the Yunnan province that farmers have used them to make pigpens.

In December 2008, Chinese scientists said they had discovered the world’s largest dinosaur fossil site in the eastern province of Shandong. More than 7,600 fossils had been taken from a 300-meter-long pit over seven months near Zhucheng. Known locally as China’s Dinosaur City, Zhucheng has yielded fossils in about 30 sites.

Many Chinese believe the dinosaur bones come from dragons not dinosaurs. Dragons are symbols of good luck and the consumption of pulverized "dragon" bones is believed to make a man strong and bring him good luck and are used as a traditional Chinese medicine for stomach ailments. Many good bones have been pulverized into medicines. Scientists are trying to convince farmers to turn in their bones to palaeontologists not Chinese medicine traders.

Lurking Dragon Hill in Guizhou is so named because of the high number of “dragon bones” found there. Peking University paleontologist Ceb Zhuxian told National Geographic, “It was here that local people used to find these small dragons. They didn’t known they were fossils, but they liked them because the dragon is a sign of good luck.” Most of the fossils found belong to 12- to 14-inch long marine creatures called “Keichousarus hui”, that look like miniature Lochness monsters.

Liaoning Fossils

A paleological site near the village of Beipiao in the Yuxian Formation in Liaoning Province, about 100 miles northeast of Beijing, is one of the world’s riches site for remains of dinosaurs and dinosaur-age creatures. It has yielded hundreds of major fossil finds. The site was discovered by a local farmer who found a fossil of the primitive bird and realized the significance of his find and split the fossil in half and gave them to rival scientific institutions n Beijing and Nanjing. [Source: Cliff Tarpy, National Geographic, August 2005]

Many of the fossils are from the Mesozoic era between 130 million and 110 million years ago — a period marked by an extraordinary diversification of life forms, including dinosaurs, mammal, birds and flowering plants. At the time the fossils were created the region was covered by lakes and contained a diverse assortment of animals and plant life.

Richard Stone wrote in Smithsonian magazine, “In a pine forest in rural northeastern China, a rugged shale slope is packed with the remains of extinct creatures from 125 million years ago, when this part of Liaoning province was covered with freshwater lakes. Volcanic eruptions regularly convulsed the area at the time, entombing untold millions of reptiles, fish, snails and insects in ash. I step gingerly among the myriad fossils, pick up a shale slab not much larger than my hand and smack its edge with a rock hammer. A seam splits a russet-colored fish in half, producing mirror impressions of delicate fins and bones as thin as human hairs. One of China's star paleontologists, Zhou Zhonghe, smiles. "Amazing place, isn't it?" he says. [Source: Richard Stone, Smithsonian magazine, December 2010]

Most of the fossils found in Liaoning province come from mudstone created from layers of clay, silt and ash deposited in lakes up to 150 million years ago. The fossil were embedded in fine-grained sediments that have preserved details as fine as the veins of leaves, the wings of insects, tissues of animals, filaments of feathers and the patterns of skin. Some have called Liaoning a Mesozoic Pompeii because of how well preserved the fossils are.

The best-preserved animals and plants were covered by gray volcanic ash that was deposited on the bottom of shallow lakes. Soft tissues and fine details were preserved because the layers of ash and mud covered the fossils were so fine they shut out oxygen and prevented decomposition. Smithsonian scientist Hans-Diter Sues told National Geographic, “The site preserved not just bodies but often whole skeletons and some birds were reserved so well can distinguish between male and female.”

Many of the animals are thought to have been killed instantly when they were engulfed by thick deposits of volcanic ash or by volcanic gases, followed by a covering of ash or mud. Repeated volcanic eruptions created layers of fossil beds that have enabled scientist to accurately date the fossils and observe their evolutionary progression.

Many of the fossils from Lianing are associated with a 130 million-year-old lake. The fact they were in a lake also was a factor in their preservation. Flowing rivers tend to break up smaller bones while lakes tend to preserve small bones and even soft tissues with layers of sediment that are gently deposited on them.

Expert: Meng Jin of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.

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Discoveries from Liaoning Fossils

As of 2005, 60 species of plant, 90 species of vertebrates and 3000 species of invertebrate have been discovered in the Liaoning fossil beds. Important discoveries include primitive birds with primitive fur and feathers, the first fossilized internal organs of dinosaurs ever seen, dinosaur skin shading patterns, the first fossil dinosaur containing a mammal it had just eaten and fossils of birds with seeds they had just eaten in the stomach, moments before they died. The skin patterns do not indicate color but they show that small dinosaurs hade spots and stripes on their skin like modern animals.

A stunning array of well-preserved fish and insects have also been found. Dinosaur-era insects include dragonflies and bees. The fish include sturgeon-like creates with soft backbones. There are even well-preserved skeletons of amphibians, which are rare because their bones are so thin.

The array of animals, the details that preserved and organized way they are organized in the volcanic layers has enable scientists to study population dynamic, succession within communities, predator-prey relationships and even child-rearing behavior..

One 125-million-year-old fossil found in Liaoning revealed a psittacosaur with 34 young psittacosaurs. Because 34 young seemed liked too many for a single parents to take care of some viewed the discovery as evidence dinosaur day care. Psittacosaurs were herbivorous beaked dinosaurs that lived between 135 million and 100 million years ago and ranged in size form three to 6.5 feet. They are ancestors of helmeted and horned dinosaurs like Triceratops. The fossils were discovered near Lui Tai village, near Yixian. The discovery was announced in 2007.

Dinosaur-Era Birds from China

“Confuciusornis sanctus”, a 150-million-year-old bird found in Liaoning, is the earliest bird yet found. It had a toothless beak, feathered wings, claws that could be used to climb trees, feathers like modern birds and long tail feathers reminiscent of those found in some tropical birds and birds of paradise. Named in honor of the Chinese sage, “Confuciusonris” lived during the Jurassic period. Most early birds date back to the later Cretaceous period and scientist have speculated that they evolved from Jurassic age dinosaurs. For a long time the Archeareopteryx was the earliest known bird. Found in Germany, it lived 149 million years ago and is thought to have led to a dead end.

“Sinosauropteryx” ("Chinese dragon-bird”) is a small bipedal birdlike dinosaur found at Liaoning in 1996. It was the first nonbird whose fossil included featherlike structures. It has been offered as proof that birds evolved from dinosaurs.

Among the other species with birdlike features found in Liaoning are “Protarchaeopteryx” and “Caudiperyx zoui”, dinosaurs that looked like little velocirpators with featherlike filaments on their bodies, tails and arms. These creatures lived 120 million to 140 million years ago. Scientist have coined the name Dromeosaur to describe a group ro two legged predators that share a common ancestor with birds. Dromeosaurs in turn belong to a subgroup of dinosaurs called theropods that share about 1,000 anatomical features with birds, including wishbones, swiveling wrists and three forward-pointing toes.

Fossils of a primitive bird called “Protopteryx” contains three different kinds of feathers: downy feathers on the head and body, true flight feathers and scalelike central tail feathers.

In June 2007, a birdlike dinosaur the size of tyrannosaur was found in the Erhain basin in Inner Mongolia. The five-meter-high, 1,400-kilogram dinosaur, called “Gigantoraptor erlainensis”, had a beak, slender legs and likely had feathers. Its discovery indicates tar the evolution of dinosaurs and birds was much more complicated than previously thought. Xu Xing, a scientists at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing who led the team that made the discovery, told AP, “This is like having a mouse that is the size of a horse or a cow. It is very important information for us in our efforts to trace the evolution process of dinosaurs to birds. Its more complicated than we imagined.”

Discovery of Confuciusornis, Dinosaur-Age Bird

In 1995, Zhou Zhonghe, one of China's star paleontologists, and colleagues announced the discovery of a fossil from Liaoning zone that heralded a new age of paleontology. The fossil was a primitive bird the size of a crow that may have been asphyxiated by volcanic fumes as it wheeled above the lakes all those millions of years ago. They named the new species Confuciusornis, after the Chinese philosopher.” [Source: Richard Stone, Smithsonian magazine, December 2010]

Richard Stone wrote in Smithsonian magazine, “Until then, only a handful of prehistoric bird fossils had been unearthed anywhere in the world. That's partly because birds, then as now, were far less common than fish and invertebrates, and partly because birds more readily evaded mudslides, tar pits, volcanic eruptions and other geological phenomena that captured animals and preserved traces of them for the ages. Scientists have located only ten intact fossilized skeletons of the earliest known bird, Archaeopteryx, which lived at the end of the Jurassic period, about 145 million years ago.”

“Zhou, who works at the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology (IVPP) of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing, believed that the extraordinary bone beds in Liaoning might fill in some of the many blanks in the fossil record of the earliest birds. He couldn't have been more prophetic. In the past 15 years, thousands of exquisitely preserved fossil birds have emerged from the ancient lakebed, called the Yixian Formation. The region has also yielded stunning dinosaur specimens, the likes of which had never been seen before. As a result, China has been the key to solving one of the biggest questions in dinosaur science in the past 150 years: the real relationship between birds and dinosaurs.”

Theory That Birds Evolved from Dinosaurs

Richard Stone wrote in Smithsonian magazine, “The idea that birds — the most diverse group of land vertebrates, with nearly 10,000 living species — descended directly from dinosaurs isn't new. It was raised by the English biologist Thomas Henry Huxley in his 1870 treatise, Further Evidence of the Affinity between the Dinosaurian Reptiles and Birds. Huxley, a renowned anatomist perhaps best remembered for his ardent defense of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution, saw little difference between the bone structure of Compsognathus, a dinosaur no bigger than a turkey, and Archaeopteryx, which was discovered in Germany and described in 1861. When Huxley looked at ostriches and other modern birds, he saw smallish dinosaurs. If a baby chicken's leg bones were enlarged and fossilized, he noted, "there would be nothing in their characters to prevent us from referring them to the Dinosauria." [Source: Richard Stone, Smithsonian magazine, December 2010]

“Still, over the decades researchers who doubted the dinosaur-bird link also made good anatomical arguments. They said dinosaurs lack a number of features that are distinctly avian, including wishbones, or fused clavicles; bones riddled with air pockets; flexible wrist joints; and three-toed feet. Moreover, the posited link seemed contrary to what everyone thought they knew: that birds are small, intelligent, speedy, warmblooded sprites, whereas dinosaurs — from the Greek for "fearfully great lizard" — were coldblooded, dull, plodding, reptile-like creatures.”

“In the late 1960s, a fossilized dinosaur skeleton from Montana began to undermine that assumption. Deinonychus, or "terrible claw" after the sickle-shaped talon on each hind foot, stood about 11 feet from head to tail and was a lithe predator. Moreover, its bone structure was similar to that of Archaeopteryx. Soon scientists were gathering other intriguing physical evidence, finding that fused clavicles were common in dinosaurs after all. Deinonychus and Velociraptor bones had air pockets and flexible wrist joints. Dinosaur traits were looking more birdlike all the time. "All those things were yanked out of the definition of being a bird," says paleontologist Matthew Carrano of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.”

“But there was one important feature that had not been found in dinosaurs, and few experts would feel entirely comfortable asserting that chickadees and triceratops were kin until they had evidence for this missing anatomical link: feathers.”

Dinosaurs with Feathers from China

The “Archaeoraptor liaoningensis”, a creature found in 2000, has been described as the most definitive link between dinosaurs and birds because it had anatomical features found on dinosaurs and feathers. Scientists who made the discovery wrote in Nature, "It has things that are undeniably feathers...But is clearly a small vicious theropod similar to the Jurassic Park."

This small duck-size dinosaur lied between 124 million and 147 million years ago. It had three different kinds of feathers: fuzz, hollow fibers of the head, plumlike "sprays" on the shoulders and filaments arranged in herring bone pattern in the backs of the arms and legs.

Scientist theorize the protofeathers could have first help keep the dinosaurs warm. Later their evolved into feather on the wings to help the creatures flap away like a chicken but nor truly fly so the could escape predators.

The fossil of a “mei long”, a species of dinosaur, was found with it head tucked under its forelimb. the position that birds adopt when they are sleeping to stay warm.

The “Gigantoraptor” is a giant birdlike dinosaur discovered in Inner Mongolia in 2007. Related to the oviraptorosaurs of the late Cretaceous Period’small 40-kilogram creatures with a toothless beak — it weighs more than one and half tons. It is not known what it ate with its large toothless beak or if it had feathers on its claw-tipped arms like other oviraptorosaurs.

Discovery of Dinosaur with Feathers

A 124-million-year-old fossil of a “ sinosauropteryx “, a small flesh-eating theropod, found in China has for the first time revealed the color of dinosaurs: reddish brown. In article published in Nature in February 2010, Mike Benton, a professor of paleontology at Britain’s Bristol University, announced the discovery using internal cellular coloring agents — not the colors themselves — found fossilized tail feathers found in the fossil.

Richard Stone wrote in Smithsonian magazine,”A poor Chinese farmer, Li Yingfang, made one of the greatest fossil finds of all time, in August 1996 in Sihetun village, an hour's drive from the site where I'd prospected for fossil fish. "I was digging holes for planting trees," recalls Li, who now has a full-time job at a dinosaur museum built at that very site. From a hole he unearthed a two-foot-long shale slab. An experienced fossil hunter, Li split the slab and beheld a creature unlike any he had seen. The skeleton had a birdlike skull, a long tail and impressions of what appeared to be feather-like structures.” [Source: Richard Stone, Smithsonian magazine, December 2010]

“Because of the feathers, Ji Qiang, then the director of the National Geological Museum, which bought one of Li's slabs, assumed it was a new species of primitive bird. But other Chinese paleontologists were convinced it was a dinosaur. On a visit to Beijing that October, Philip Currie, a paleontologist now at the University of Alberta, saw the specimen and realized it would turn paleontology on its head. The next month, Currie, a longtime China hand, showed a photograph of it to colleagues at the annual meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology. The picture stole the show. "It was such an amazing fossil," recalls paleontologist Hans-Dieter Sues of the National Museum of Natural History. "Sensational." Western paleontologists soon made a pilgrimage to Beijing to see the fossil. "They came back dazed," Sues says.”

“Despite the feathers, the skeleton left no doubt that the new species, named Sinosauropteryx, meaning "Chinese lizard wing," was a dinosaur. It lived around 125 million years ago, based on the dating of radioactive elements in the sediments that encased the fossil. Its integumentary filaments — long, thin structures protruding from its scaly skin — convinced most paleontologists that the animal was the first feathered dinosaur ever unearthed. A dozen dinosaurs with filaments or feathers have since been discovered at that site.”

“By analyzing specimens from China, paleontologists have filled in gaps in the fossil record and traced the evolutionary relationships among various dinosaurs. The fossils finally have confirmed, to all but a few skeptics, that birds descended from dinosaurs and are the living representatives of a dinosaur lineage called the Maniraptorans.

“Most dinosaurs were not part of the lineage that gave rise to birds; they occupied other branches of the dinosaur family tree. Sinosauropteryx, in fact, was what paleontologists call a non-avian dinosaur, even though it had feathers. This insight has prompted paleontologists to revise their view of other non-avian dinosaurs, such as the notorious meat eater Velociraptor and even some members of the tyrannosaur group. They, too, were probably adorned with feathers.”

Evolution of Feathers

Richard Stone wrote in Smithsonian magazine, “The abundance of feathered fossils has allowed paleontologists to examine a fundamental question: Why did feathers evolve? Today, it's clear that feathers perform many functions: they help birds retain body heat, repel water and attract a mate. And of course they aid flight — but not always, as ostriches and penguins, which have feathers but do not fly, demonstrate. Many feathered dinosaurs did not have wings or were too heavy, relative to the length of their feathered limbs, to fly.” [Source: Richard Stone, Smithsonian magazine, December 2010]

“Deciphering how feathers morphed over the ages from spindly fibers to delicate instruments of flight would shed light on the transition of dinosaurs to birds, and how natural selection forged this complex trait. Few scientists know ancient feathers more intimately than IVPP's Xu Xing. He has discovered 40 dinosaur species — more than any other living scientist — from all over China. His office at IVPP, across the street from the Beijing Zoo, is cluttered with fossils and casts.”

Xu envisions feather evolution as an incremental process. Feathers in their most primitive form were single filaments, resembling quills, that jutted from reptilian skin. These simple structures go way back; even pterodactyls had filaments of sorts. Xu suggests that feather evolution may have gotten started in a common ancestor of pterodactyls and dinosaurs — nearly 240 million years ago, or some 95 million years before Archaeopteryx.”

After the emergence of single filaments came multiple filaments joined at the base. Next to appear in the fossil record were paired barbs shooting off a central shaft. Eventually, dense rows of interlocking barbs formed a flat surface: the basic blueprint of the so-called pennaceous feathers of modern birds. All these feather types have been found in fossil impressions of theropods, the dinosaur suborder that includes Tyrannosaurus rex as well as birds and other Maniraptorans.”

“Filaments are found elsewhere in the dinosaur family tree as well, in species far removed from theropods, such as Psittacosaurus, a parrot-faced herbivore that arose around 130 million years ago. It had sparse single filaments along its tail. It's not clear why filaments appear in some dinosaur lineages but not in others. "One possibility is that feather-like structures evolved very early in dinosaur history," says Xu, and some groups maintained the structures, while other groups lost them. "But finally in Maniraptorans, feathers stabilized and evolved into modern feathers," he says. Or filaments may have evolved independently at different times. As Sues points out, "It seems that, genetically, it's not a great trick to make a scale into a filament."

“Originally, single filaments may well have been for display, the dinosaur equivalent of a peacock's iridescent plumage. Vivid evidence for that theory appeared when scientists unveiled the true colors of 125-million-year-old feathers. Bird feathers and reptile scales contain melanosomes — tiny sacs holding varieties of the pigment melanin. Many paleontologists suspected that dinosaur feathers also contained melanosomes. In Mike Benton's laboratory at the University of Bristol, IVPP's Zhang Fucheng spent more than a year searching for melanosomes in photographs of bird and dinosaur fossils taken with an electron microscope. Zhang's diligence paid off in 2009 when he pinpointed melanosomes in Confuciusornis that contained eumelanin, which gives feathers a gray or black tinge, and pheomelanin, which gives them a chestnut to reddish-brown color. The animal's feathers had patches of white, black and orange-brown coloring. “Sinosauropteryx was even more stunning. Zhang found that the filaments running down its back and tail must have made the dinosaur look like an orange-and-white-striped barber pole. Such a vibrant pattern suggests that "feathers first arose as agents for color display," Benton says.”

Purpose of Early Feathers

Richard Stone wrote in Smithsonian magazine, “Early feathers could have served other purposes. Hollow filaments may have dissipated heat, much as the frills of some modern lizards do today. Other paleontologists speculate feathers first evolved to retain heat. A telling example comes from fossils of Oviraptor — a theropod unearthed in Mongolia that lived around 75 million years ago’squatting over egg-filled nests. Oviraptors tucked their legs into the center of the clutch and hugged the periphery with their long forelimbs — a posture bearing an uncanny resemblance to brooding birds keeping their eggs warm. Dinosaurs related to Oviraptor were covered with pennaceous feathers, suggesting that Oviraptor was as well. "Sitting on a nest like that only made sense if it had feathers" to gently insulate its young, says Sues.” [Source: Richard Stone, Smithsonian magazine, December 2010]

“Feathers did, of course, eventually become an instrument of flight. Some paleontologists envision a scenario in which dinosaurs used feathers to help them occupy trees for the first time. "Because dinosaurs had hinged ankles, they could not rotate their feet and they couldn't climb well. Maybe feathers helped them scramble up tree trunks," Carrano says. Baby birds of primarily ground-dwelling species like turkeys use their wings in this way. Feathers may have become increasingly aerodynamic over millions of years, eventually allowing dinosaurs to glide from tree to tree. Individuals able to perform such a feat might have been able to reach new food sources or better escape predators — and pass the trait on to subsequent generations.”

Missing Links Between Dinosaurs and Birds

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Gigantoraptor, bird-like dinosaur

In January 2003, Chinese scientist revealed the discovery of a “four-winged? dinosaur that had wings on its forelimbs and legs. The creature, given the name “Microraptor”, was about a meter long and appears to have “flown” by gliding using a method similar to that of flying squirrels. Xing Xu said, “The new fossils provide an example of the transition of dinosaurs to birds. They are the link between the flightless dinosaur and (flying) birds.”

Microraptor lived between 120 million and 110 million years ago. Xu and others argue that over time these creatures evolved into birds as their hind wings were lost. The existence of these creatures also offers evidence that the first flying bird-dinosaurs lept off trees or other high places rather then getting a running start and taking off from the ground. Richard Stone wrote in Smithsonian magazine, “One of the most beguiling specimens to emerge from Liaoning's shale beds is Microraptor, which Xu discovered in 2003. The bantamweight beast was a foot or two long and tipped the scales at a mere two pounds. Microraptor, from the Dromaeosaur family, was not an ancestor of birds, but it was also unlike any previously discovered feathered dinosaur. Xu calls it a "four-winged" dinosaur because it had long, pennaceous feathers on its arms and legs. Because of its fused breastbone and asymmetrical feathers, says Xu, Microraptor surely could glide from tree to tree, and it may even have been better at flying under its own power than Archaeopteryx was. [Source: Richard Stone, Smithsonian magazine, December 2010]

“Last year, Xu discovered another species of four-winged dinosaur, also at Liaoning. Besides showing that four-winged flight was not a fluke, the new species, Anchiornis huxleyi, named in honor of Thomas Henry Huxley, is the earliest known feathered dinosaur. It came from Jurassic lakebed deposits 155 million to 160 million years old. The find eliminated the final objection to the evolutionary link between birds and dinosaurs. For years, skeptics had raised the so-called temporal paradox: there were no feathered dinosaurs older than Archaeopteryx, so birds could not have arisen from dinosaurs. Now that argument was blown away: Anchiornis is millions of years older than Archaeopteryx. Four-winged dinosaurs were ultimately a dead branch on the tree of life; they disappear from the fossil record around 80 million years ago. Their demise left only one dinosaur lineage capable of flight: birds.”

“Sinoventor changi”, another dinosaur discovered in the early 2000s in Liaoning, was a two-legged, chicken -size predator that probably had feathers and possessed a birdlike shoulder joint, a wishbone, and a pelvic bone that points backward. It was estimated to be about 130 million years old. “Incisivosaurus gauhhieri” lived about the same time. Described as a cross between a bird, a Tyrannosaurus rex and a beaver, it was the size of a turkey and had many birdlike features such as chisel-shaped teeth used for gnawing plants.

A fossilized dinosaur pelvis containing two unlaid eggs was found in Jiangxi Province. The animal, a female “oviraptorosaurian”, was bipedal, lived 65 million years ago and had two potato-shaped, pineapple-size eggs inside her. Scientist say that its reproductive system was more like a bird’s than a reptiles and it laid successive pairs of eggs rather one large clutch all at once. Like a bird the eggs were produced by a single ovary but like a reptile more than one egg could be laid at a time. Birds can only lay one egg at a time. Reptiles like crocodiles have two ovaries and can lay several eggs at once. The discovery was announced in April 2005. The specimen was found some time ago and is kept at the National Museum of Natural Science in Taiwan.

How Did Dinosaurs Become Birds?

Richard Stone wrote in Smithsonian magazine, “Just when did dinosaurs evolve into birds? Hard to say. "Deep in evolutionary history, it is extremely difficult to draw the line between birds and dinosaurs," says Xu. Aside from minor differences in the shape of neck vertebrae and the relative length of the arms, early birds and their Maniraptoran kin, such as Velociraptor, look very much alike. "If Archaeopteryx were discovered today, I don't think you would call it a bird. You would call it a feathered dinosaur," says Carrano. It's still called the first bird, but more for historic reasons than because it is the oldest or best embodiment of birdlike traits. On the other hand, Confuciusornis, which possessed the first beak and earliest pygostyle, or fused tail vertebrae that supported feathers, truly looks like a bird. "It passes the sniff test," Carrano says. [Source: Richard Stone, Smithsonian magazine, December 2010]

“Since the last of the non-avian dinosaurs died out 65 million years ago during the mass extinction that closed the curtain on the Cretaceous period, birds have evolved other characteristics that set them apart from dinosaurs. Modern birds have higher metabolisms than even the most agile Velociraptor ever had. Teeth disappeared at some point in birds' evolutionary history. Birds' tails got shorter, their flying skills got better and their brains got bigger than those of dinosaurs. And modern birds, unlike their Maniraptoran ancestors, have a big toe that juts away from the other toes, which allows birds to perch. "You gradually go from the long arms and huge hands of non-avian Maniraptorans to something that looks like the chicken wing you get at KFC," says Sues. Given the extent of these avian adaptations, it's no wonder the evolutionary link between dinosaurs and birds as we know them remained hidden until paleontologists started analyzing the rich fossil record from China.”

“In addition to Sinosauropteryx, several other revelatory specimens came to light through amateurs rather than at scientific excavations. The challenge for Zhou and his colleagues is to find hot specimens before they disappear into private collections. Thus Zhou and his colleague Zhang Jiangyong, a specialist on ancient fish at IVPP, have come to Liaoning province to check out any fossils that dealers friendly to their cause have gotten their hands on of late.”

Theropods and Birds

In the last 1990s, fossils of three flightless dinosaurs were found in Liaoning and studied by a team lead of Stephen Czerkas of the Dinosaur Museum in Blanding Utah. What was interesting about them is that they were theropods, or meat eaters, and included a couple of eagle-size dromaeosaurs, small raptors like the ones in “Jurassic Park”, and a two-meter therizinosaur, with the arms of a bird and the tail of a dinosaur that was described by some as the missing link between dinosaurs and birds and gave credence to a theory first proposed by John Ostrom of Yale that birds evolved from theropods. [Source: Christopher P. Sloan, National Geographic, November 1999]

One dromaeosaur, named Sinornothosaurus, had a shoulder bone more similar to a bird than a dinosaur. Another dromaesoaur had feathers very much like those on birds, The therizinosaur is the largest known dinosaur found with feathers, which were more likely used for insulation than flight. All three creatures lived about 120 million years ago. The theory goes these theropods were the first dinosaurs to have feathers. The feathers were initially used for warmth but later they helped the dinosaurs make leaping escapes and jumps and this evolved into flight over time.

In June 2009, a 155-million-year-old fossil was found in the Shishugu Formation in the Jungar Basin that provided important clues in understanding the evolution if bird-like dinosaurs. In a report in Nature, a team led by Chinese dinosaur expert Xing Xu said they discovered a young beaked herbivore — dubbed Limusaurus — that had feet configurations like those of birds, suggesting they have been early ancestors of birds.

In October 2009, British and Chinese scientists announced the discovery of the fossil of a 160-million-year-old pterosaur that they said provided a “missing link” in the understanding of flying dinosaurs also known as pterodactyls. The crow-size creature, dubbed Darwinopterus modularis in honor of Charles Darwin, lived 10 million years before the first bird and had wings and a head like other pterosaur but also had a long tail. The fossils were found in Zhucheng in Shandong Province.

Missing Link' Pterosaur Found in China

In October 2009, AFP reported: “Chinese and British palaeontologists have identified a crow-sized fossil that they believe fills a key gap in our understanding of the mysterious flying reptiles known as pterosaurs. The species has been baptised Darwinopterus modularis in honor of Charles Darwin, who was born 200 years ago and 150 years ago published his ground-breaking work on evolution, "On the Origin of Species." [Source: Agence France-Presse, October 14, 2009]

The five palaeontologists, reporting in the British journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, say more than 20 fossilized skeletons of the newly-uncovered species were found in northeastern China earlier in 2009. The finds were unearthed from rocks dated at around 160 million years ago, which places them close to the boundary line between the Middle and Late Jurassic periods, and at least 10 million years older than the first recognised bird, Archaeopteryx.

Darwinopterus appears to be intermediary between primitive, long-tailed pterosaurs (sometimes called pterodactyls) and their descendants, who were short-tailed, more sophisticated flyers that sometimes reached gigantic sizes. "Darwinopterus came as quite a shock to us," David Unwin of the University of Leicester, central England, said in a press release. "We had always expected a gap-filler with typically intermediate features such as a moderately elongated tail — neither long nor short — but the strange thing about Darwinopterus is that it has a head and neck just like that of advanced pterosaurs, while the rest of the skeleton, including a very long tail, is identical to that of primitive forms."

Darwinopterus had long jaws, rows of sharp teeth, and a flexible-looking neck, which suggests it may have survived on the wing by snatching small mammals or pigeon-sized feathery dinosaurs that were the forerunners of birds. "Darwinopterus" means "Darwin's wing", while "modularis" means composed of interchangeable units. The investigators, led by Junchang Lu of the Institute of Geology in Beijing, believe that pterosaurs went through bursts of evolution characterised by swift changes to groups of features. The head and neck evolved first, followed later by the body, tail, wings, and legs, they contend.

Aquatic Dinosaurs and T-Rexes from China

Among the other dinosaur species found in Liaoning are the “Hyphalosaurus lingyuanensis”, a fish-eating aquatic dinosaur about four feet long with a small head, needlelike teeth and a bulbous nose that allowed it stay submerged under the water; and the “haopterus gracilis”, a flying dinosaur with a 4½-foot wingspan and and a slender snout that suggested it preyed on fish.

A group of fossils found in China in 1983 suggests the early dinosaurs took the water not long after they took to the skies. Five specimens of a dinosaur called “Gansus yumenis”, dated to 110 million years, indicate they had webbed feet and other features found on ducks. Gansu also had feathers and was regarded as an early ancestor of modern birds.

In February 2006, fossils of the oldest known ancestor of the Tyrannosaurus Rex was announced in the British journal Nature. Found in badlands featured in the film “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”, the fossils were dated to 160 million years ago, 90 million years before T. Rex. Named “Guanlong Wucaii” and considerably small than a T. rex, the dinosaur stood about a meter tall at the hip, measures three meters from head to tail, had wing-like arms and a crest on its head.

“Dilong paradoxus”, a small tyrannosaur that lived 125 million, long before Tyrannosaurs rex, had a downy covering of protofeathers, hair like features that probably developed for insulation and were the precursors of feathers. Found in Liaoning, Dilong paradoxus measured about 1.6 meters from head to tail and had longer and stronger arms in proportion to its body than the Tyrannosaurus rex. Its name means “paradoxical emperor dragon.”

Mini T-Rexes and Other Mini Dinosaurs from China

A number of small dinosaur fossils found in the Jungar Basin, an area of Gobi Desert badlands in northwest China and dated to a period between 165 million and 155 million years ago, suggests that that era was an extraordinary period in which numerous small dinosaurs evolved and diversified and produced creatures that appear to be miniature versions of the well known dinosaurs like Tyrannosaurus Rex and Triceratops that would later dominate the dinosaur era. Many of the well-preserved specimens died after being caught in wet volcanic sand that trapped them.

In September 2009, University of Chicago paleontologist Paul Sereno announced that his team had found a relatively small ancestor of the Tyrannosaurus Rex. The 2.75-meter-long dinosaur, dubbed Raptorex kreigsteini, weighed 60 kilograms and was nearly 100 times smaller than a full-size T-Rex but had a nearly identical structure — big head, large leg muscles and feet and a tiny arms. It lived 125 million years ago, about 40 million years before the heyday of the T-Rex.

Tyrannosaurus-like Zhuchengtyrannus magnus

In April 2011, scientists announced in the journal Cretaceous Research, the discovery of previously unknown predator in China similar to a Tyrannosaurus Rex. Dubbed Zhuchengtyrannus magnus, or "tyrant from Zhucheng," after the spot in China’s Shandong Province where it was discovered, the carnivorous theropod is among the largest in its family ever found. It measured 11 meters (36 feet) from head to tail, stood four meters (13 feet) tall, and weighed in at six tons. [Source: AFP]

"It can be distinguished from other tyrannosourines by a combination of unique features in the skull not seen in any other theropods," David Hone, a professor at University College Dublin and lead author of the study told AFP. Palaeontologists only had a partial jaw bone and part of the skull to work with, so it was difficult to gauge the creatures exact size. "But the bones we have are just a few centimeters smaller than the equivalent ones in the largest T. rex specimen, so there is no doubt that Zhuchengtyrannus was huge," Hone said.

The Shandong site where the new dinosaur was found, along with nearby sites, boasts one of the highest concentrations of dinosaur remains anywhere in the world. Scientists speculate that the area is rich in fossils because it was a flood plain.

Prehistoric Mammals from China

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Swimming beaver-like mammal

Small mammals called triconodonts lived 200 million years in Liaoning. Triconodonts ranged in size from the size of a small lizard to a cat and endured for 100 million years. Triconodont fossil have been found in other places. The fossils found in Liaoning were the first complete skeletons.

A 195-million-year-old creature, the size of a paper clip, found in 1985 in the Yunnan province, is believed to be a missing link between reptiles and mammals. It has space in its skull for a relatively large brain and a jaw with reptile-like and mammal-like features.

In February 2006, a team lead by Zhe-Xi Luo of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History announced the discovery of a swimming, fish-eating, beaver-like creature that lived 164 million years at the Daohuguo site in Inner Mongolia. The mammal had a flat-scaly tail like a beaver and seal-like teeth and was called “Castorocaunda lutrasimilis”. This mammal and others found in China debunked the conventional view that dinosaur-age mammals were timid shrew-like creatures that slinked around in the shadows and became strong and powerful animals only after a dinosaur-killing asteroid hit the earth.

In December 2006, scientists announced the discovery of a 125-million-year-old mammal, “volaticotherium antiquius” that look remarkably like a modern flying squirrel. Discovered the Daohuguo site in Inner Mongolia, the same place the beaver-like mammal was discovered, it had webbing between its legs that it could use to sail through the trees. It was the earliest known example of gliding fight among mammals and showed that mammals were more sophisticated than previous thought and were experimenting with flight around the same time dinosaurs were. Before the discovery the earliest evidence of gliding mammals was among animals that lived 30 million years ago.

“Repenomanus robustus” was a cat-size, weasel-like mammal with large pointy teeth and powerful jaws that fed on small dinosaurs. One 130-million-year-old fossil specimen was found with the remains of a small beaked dinosaur called a Psittacosaurus in its stomach. The dinosaur was a juvenile. The remains suggest it was wolfed down in chunks rather than chewed. It is not known whether “Repenomanus robustus” hunted the dinosaur or scavenged it, but it had strong legs and sharp teeth and could have easily been a hunter.

“Repenomanus giganticus” was a similar creature whose fossils were also found in Liaoning. The largest dinosaur-age mammal every discovered, is weighed about 14 kilograms and was about a meter in length, making it about the size of a badger or a mid-size dog or about twice the size of Repenomanus robustus. Presumably it fed on small dinosaurs too.

Liaoning has also yielded a rat-size mammal known as “Gobicinodon zofiae” that lived 125 million years ago. The well-preserved fossil shows evidence of fur and placental birth. The creatures appears to have fed on insects and was capable of climbing trees.

Stone-Age-Era Mammals from China

In ancient times parts of China were inhabited by giant orangutan-like apes, ancient hoses, saber toothed tigers, giant hyenas, mastodons, elephants, and ancestors of giant pandas. The largest primate ever was a Pleistocene ape that lived in southern China and Vietnam and weighed 540 kilograms and had inch-wide teeth and is thought to have subsisted, like pandas, mainly on bamboo.

The giant, three-meter-tall ape, “Gigantopitjecus blaccki “, lived as recently as 100,000 years ago, a time when humans were also thought to have inhabited the region. Jack Rink, a Canadian palaeontologist from McMaster University who is studying the creature, told the Times of London, “Probably the creature lived in the caves and fed in bamboo forests, while people were living lower in river valleys. It is quite likely that humans came face to face with the ape.”

Looting of Dinosaur Fossils in China

The looting of dinosaur fossils is a problem as it is with ancient artifacts and treasures, especially as the interest in dinosaurs and the value of their fossils has risen. Sometimes the money involved is quite big. An unusually-well-preserved, 65-million-year-old dinosaur nest found in Guangdong in 1984 was sold for $420,000 at an auction in 2006.

The Liaoning site is so rich and the fossils are so valuable that guards have been hired to keep away thieves who sell the fossils illegally to collectors. The theft of fossils is a serious problem and a temptation for any peasant in the area because of the large amount of money they bring in.

In some places Chinese farmers recklessly swing pick axes into rock slabs that contain fossils of prehistoric birds and fish and sell them to traders who doctor the fossils to increase their value. Even if the fossils are recovered their scientific value has already been seriously compromised. The Chinese paleontologist Xu Xing told National Geographic, “If it isn’t collect right, a fossil loses its context — the layer it was found in and its relationship to other fossils.”

Liaoning isn’t the only place fossils are being taken. Peasants in the Henan province are reportedly selling fossilized dinosaur eggs to illegal dinosaur egg traffickers for between $25 and $35 a piece. In The Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, an area rich in fossils of large mammals, members of the Hui minority spend all the time they can digging for bones, One man, who found a large skull of a 15 million-year-old elephant after digging a 500-meter long tunnel, told the New York Times he hoped to sell it to a museum or a collector for $4,000 to $6,000. He said he was able to distinguish bones from white rocks by taste.

The laws regarding the fossil trade are confusing and poorly enforced. Places like the Lingyuuan Paleontology Fossil Museum openly sell framed fossils for big stacks of cash. At the Linguan Prehistoric Fossil Protectorate, poachers roam freely, discarding pieces of rock like the tailings from mines. Often times the scientists are the ones who looked upon with scorn by local people because in their eyes the scientists loot treasurers that the local people could sell.

Chinese Fossil Souvenirs

Chaoyang is a drab Chinese city with dusty streets; in its darker corners it's reminiscent of gritty 19th-century American coal-mining towns. But to fossil collectors, Chaoyang is a paradise, only a one-hour drive from some of the Yixian Formation's most productive beds.

Richard Stone wrote in Smithsonian magazine, “One street is lined with shops selling yuhuashi, or fish fossils. Framed fossils embedded in shale, often in mirror-image pairs, can be had for a dollar or two. A popular item is a mosaic in which a few dozen small slabs form a map of China; fossil fish appear to swim toward the capital, Beijing (and no map is complete without a fish representing Taiwan). Merchants sell fossilized insects, crustaceans and plants. Occasionally, despite laws that forbid trade in fossils of scientific value, less scrupulous dealers have been known to sell dinosaur fossils. The most important specimens, Zhou says, "are not discovered by scientists at the city's fossil shops, but at the homes of the dealers or farmers who dug them." [Source: Richard Stone, Smithsonian magazine, December 2010]

“Most of the stock in the fossil shops comes from farmers who hack away at fossil beds when they aren't tending their fields. A tiny well-preserved fish specimen can yield its finder the equivalent of 25 cents, enough for a hot meal. A feathered dinosaur can earn several thousand dollars, a year's income or more. Destructive as it is to the fossil beds, this paleo economy has helped rewrite prehistory.”

Zhou picks up a slab and peers at it through his wire-rimmed glasses. "Chairman, come here and look," Zhou says to Zhang (who earned his playful nickname as chairman of IVPP's employees union). Zhang examines the specimen and adds it to a pile that will be hauled back to Beijing for study — and, if they are lucky, reveal another hidden branch of the tree of life.

Fossils Returned to China

In September 2009, US customs officials turned over to China today fossils dating from as early as 100 million years ago that included bones of a sabre-toothed cat, a partial skull of a dinosaur called a Psittacosaurus lujiatunesis and eggs of several other dinosaurs. The undocumented relics had been shipped in two loads and were confiscated by customs agents in Chicago and Richmond, Virginia, the US homeland security department said. [Source: AP, The Guardian, September 14, 2009]

A department announcement said the fossils were found during routine inspection of arriving cargoes. Some are suspected of being intentionally brought in, a violation of US import laws, the department said. John Morton, an assistant secretary of homeland security, said “the attempt to remove them from China ran up against a network of national and international customs laws that are in place to protect against the theft of cultural property. “We are pleased to return them to their rightful owners, the people of China.”

Image Sources: Chinese Academy of Sciences ; Asia Obscura

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Updated July 2014

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