A GIANT, pinkish femur juts out of the ground, longer than a person is tall. The area is littered with the fossilised vertebrae, leg and arm bones and skull of this Hadrosaurus. For 70m years it and other dinosaurs have lain buried here. Now the site in Zhucheng, in Shandong province in eastern China, is known as “dinosaur valley” for its more than 10,000 fossils found to date. The hunt for dinosaurs only properly began in China in recent decades. Already more species have been identified there than in any other country.
The bonanza is explained by China’s great expanses of rock from the Mesozoic era, when “fearful dragons”, as they are called in Chinese, roamed. In many areas rivers, floods, sandstorms and earthquakes buried the animals soon after they died, so preserving them. An unusually large amount of the rock from this era is now close to the surface, so the troves of bones, eggs and footprints have been uncovered comparatively easily. A recent discovery in Liaoning province, the Changyuraptor yangi, is the largest known four-winged flying reptile and marks another vital step on the evolutionary path from dinosaurs to birds.
A rise in science funding also lies behind China’s dinosaur bounty: rather like the Chinese economy, Chinese palaeontology is in its rapidly emerging stage, says Xu Xing of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, who himself has found more than 40 new species. Fossils are frequently uncovered at the country’s many construction sites, along the routes of new railways, for example.
Selling fossils is illegal in China. But many farmers now make far more money flogging fossils (including fake ones) on the black market than they do from their crops. Attempts to build a tourist industry around dinosaurs have been less lucrative. Farmers will have to be better compensated for their fossil discoveries if scientists are to win the battle of the bones.