China’s fossil treasure house

For small, shelly faunas that just preceded the Cambrian Explosion, outcrops that span mass extinction events, the evolution of vertebrates and much else besides, the huge diversity of Chinese geology has become a hive of palaeontological activity.  Perhaps this is due to an astonishing run of good fortune through the Phanerozoic as regards excellence of preservation, or the patience, ingenuity and skill of Chinese fossil experts.  The embarras de richesse is probably a blend of both with the fact that for decades following the Cultural Revolution little work was possible for political reasons.  Pent-up enthusiasm and curiosity is a marvellous driving force in research when released.

Such is the degree of interest that the 12 January 2001 issue of Science devotes 10 pages (Stokstad, E., Normile, D. and Lei, X. 2001.  Paleontology in China.  Science v.  291, p. 232-241) to a summary of discoveries so far, how Chinese palaeontologists are organising and funding their work, the in-fighting that goes on (not so different from anywhere else!) and the dangers of unique material being looted in the manner of rare works of art.  One difference in fossil hunting between developed and poor countries that are geologically well-endowed, is that in the former most of it is by professionals or well-heeled amateurs seeking entertainment.  In China it is a potential source of extra income for rural people, in the same manner as artisanal gold working, widespread in Africa.  That is double edged: while leaving no stone left unturned where fossils crop up in soil, it is the source of semi-legal international trade in treasures like dinosaur eggs containing embryos, and untutored fossickers make no records of stratigraphy.

The most important issue discussed in the revue concerns how essential overseas resources focus on scientific potential in less well-heeled countries.  There is a tendency, which has tempted most scientists with access to funds to pay lip-service to transnational collaboration, merely to add names to proposals and publications of individuals who for various reasons have not played a full, or sometimes any role at all.  That is a device to attract funds with an air of philanthropy, and to get official access to material.  It has no benefit for transfer of knowledge, skills and technology.  Most Chinese palaeontologists now rightly demand to participate fully in order to boost and widen expertise in their community.

The Chinese experience offers plenty of lessons for Earth scientists in other poor countries.  For one thing, it has focussed the government’s attention on reversing the previous drain of excellence by earmarking affordable funds for research.  Another is that it shows how curiosity and plain hard work can open up entirely new knowledge from the previously overlooked.  There is no reason why their application in other poorly-known geological scenarios shouldn’t uncover crucial threads for many other problems of the Earth’s evolution – about 75% of the continental surface still remains to be mapped at scales better than 1:1 million.

Oh Dear, another weird dinosaur!

China isn’t the only new frontier for palaeontologists.  It looks as though Madagascar is on the fossil map, because of fine preservation in late-Cretaceous, terrestrial sediments there.  The latest find there is a somewhat diminutive (~1.8 m long), but nontheless strange abelisaurid theropod – the group best known for having T. rex as a member (Sampson, S.D. et al. 2001.  A bizarre predatory dinosaur from the late Cretaceous of Madagascar.  Nature, v. 409, p. 504-506).

Masiakasaurus knopfleri  (the expedition crew included the few surviving fans of Dire Straits) had nimble teeth; in fact a whole gob-full of them.  Not a beast on whose snout to place a little kiss, for lots of pointy and serrated fangs protrude in a most alarming manner.  “It shows there’s still more to theropod lifestyles than we thought”, observed Tom Holtz of the University of Maryland; something with which we can all agree.  But upon what victims did it prey?  There are similarly equipped fossil crocodiles, and M. knopfleri certainly seems well-equipped to snaffle the odd passing trout.  However, the late Cretaceous greenhouse world had an atmosphere with high oxygen levels due to much greater rates of photosynthesis than now.  It probably teemed with large flying insects, because oxygen levels determine the maximum size compatible with the high metabolism needed for flight.  The discoverers plump for an insectivorous lifestyle.

But just what constitutes “weirdness”, the adjective “bizarre”?  To me, they are appropriately applied to living beetles that boil formic acid and spit it on a predator, giant squid whose sexuality involves males injecting packets of sperm under high pressure into the tentacles of females, who, at their leisure, rip off the skin that heals the wounds to impregnate themselves, and, of course, the recently discovered phyllum that lives exclusively on the lips of lobsters.

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