The Year in Science: Evolution 1997

Cretaceous Pompeii

By Ann Gibbons|Thursday, January 01, 1998
As Larry Martin explored the barren hills of a remote corner of northeast China last March, it struck him that he was visiting a scene of mass death. Here, on the shores of an ancient lake, hundreds of birds, dinosaurs, fish, insects, and plants all died suddenly sometime between 130 and 110 million years ago. Perhaps they were engulfed in a cloud of ash or poisonous gas from a volcano—but today, in any case, their remains are so numerous and so well preserved that the site in the Liaoning Province is being called a paleo-Pompeii. It’s as if they were frozen in time, says Martin, a paleontologist at the University of Kansas in Lawrence.

The site has been known for years to local people, who have dug up fish and insect fossils to sell to collectors. But its importance wasn’t recognized until recently when one lucky prospector hit pay dirt—layers of clay stone filled with hundreds of primitive birds and dinosaurs, including a small carnivorous dinosaur that some paleontologists have claimed had a crest of primitive feathers. (A debate is still raging over the issue.) The dinosaur was found just below the remains of two prehistoric birds—Confuciusornis and Protarchaeopteryx—that closely resemble the 150-million-year-old Archaeopteryx from Germany. With further study, one or both of them may challenge Archaeopteryx’s title as the most primitive known bird.

As word of the discoveries spread, Western paleontologists faxed scientists in China with requests to see the specimens. Martin, John Ostrom of Yale, and other members of an international team sent by the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia made the trek last spring and examined fossils so well preserved they could see an egg in one dinosaur’s oviduct and a last meal of mammal in another’s gut. And these fossils are just a fraction of the treasure buried at Liaoning—the remains come from several mass deaths that are layered in a 4,800-foot-thick bed of sediments. That means decades of work for paleontologists; the Americans are nearing an agreement to collaborate with the Chinese. As I was retreating from those hills, Ostrom exults, I realized that this is the most important earth science discovery in our lifetime.
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