Chinese paleontologists and their Western colleagues have launched a joint exploration of a stunning new trove of dinosaur and bird fossils in northeast China. Under a $1 million agreement, announced yesterday at a press conference at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, a joint U.S.-Chinese team will map and date the site, study its geology, and excavate fossils.
The collaboration, sponsored by the academy, comes after an international team of paleontologists visited the new fossil beds in the Yixian formation of the Liaoning province of northeast China earlier this month. "They were dumbstruck by the richness of the site," says academy paleontologist Donald Wolberg, who arranged the collaboration along with Ji Qiang, director of the National Geological Museum of China.
The fossil beds are the resting place of hundreds of early birds and dinosaurs, including a female dinosaur called Sinosauropteryx that had the carcass of an early mammal in its gut and an egg in its oviduct--making it the earliest example of such predation and of an internal organ from the fossil record. The rich beds also have produced two fossils that have gained international attention in the past year--the purported "feathered" dinosaur called Sinosauropteryx prima (Science, 1 November 1996, p. 720 ) and a candidate for the oldest modern-looking bird called Liaoningornis (Science, 15 November 1996, p. 1083 ).
Four American scientists and one German paleontologist reconnoitered the site to try to determine whether Sinosauropteryx had a crest of feathers. Although they say they still don't have an answer--it could be protofeathers or a lizardlike trill--they were stunned by the new site, which represents a slice of time at the border of the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods about 120 million to 130 million years ago. "It appears to represent a blank page in a chapter of Earth time not seen before," says expedition leader John Ostrom of Yale University.
Local farmers had been harvesting fossils of fish and insects from the beds for several years, but realized only last year that there were even more valuable remains of early birds, mammals, and dinosaurs.