Friday, August 8, 2008

Dinosaurs in China

Since the American Museum of Natural History led a famous expedition to the Gobi Desert in the 1920s, China has been an amazing source of diverse and intricately detailed dinosaur fossils. Its Dashuigou Formation has produced hundreds of specimens from dozens of species, and some of the best fossilized eggs and footprints ever discovered. Frequent highway construction has excavated even more dazzling samples, with surprising characteristics.

The Chinese continue to revolutionize the field of paleontology, as several major and highly unusual new creatures have been unearthed in 2008.

Gigantoraptor was excavated by Chinese scientists in Inner Mongolia. This animal was 8 meters long and 5 meters tall, comparable in size to Tyrannosaurus Rex. Dinosaurs of this size generally do not resemble birds, but Gigantoraptor had feathers, slender legs, and actually had a beak instead of teeth. 
Usually as dinosaurs attained great size, they would lose their birdlike characteristics, although this specimen seems to confound that theory. In fact, it was 35 times larger than its closest known relative. Weighing 1400 Kg, this is the largest example of a birdlike dinosaur ever discovered.

Zhejiang Province, at the foot of Hugong Mountain, on the outskirts of Dongyang City, has been an outstanding source of fossils since the area was excavated by highway crews in 1977 and sauropod skeletons were discovered. From this area comes the Jiangshanosaurus, one of China's most famous species, important because it helped prove that all dinosaurs developed from a common ancestor, and that the landmasses used to be connected as the super-continent of Pangaea.

In 2008, a new giant sauropod species was discovered in Zhejiang. This as yet unnamed animal lived during the Cretaceous (60 million years ago), and was 15 meters long when it was still not fully grown!

Mamenchisaurus was discovered in Sichuan in 1952, and is often said to have been the dinosaur with the longest neck of them all, 15 meters in length with 19 vertebrae. These vertebrae were hollow, to help reduce the weight of the neck. This animal had a "second brain" in the spinal cord near the hip area, which helped control the rear half of the body.
Dozens of nearly complete skeletons have been found. This amazing creature can be seen in the Beijing Museum of Natural History, or in the Field Museum, in Chicago, USA.

Renewed Chinese interest in paleontology has contributed to the opening of several impressive new dinosaur parks and museums, worth checking out for Olympic tourists. The Chinese Land and Resources Administration even built a giant dam near Harbin to protect a field of dinosaur fossils.

For my previous posts on dinosaurs, click here.

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