Chinese paleontologist braves Myanmar’s conflict-ridden north in hunt for dinosaur fossils

Source:Global Times Published: 2019/2/14 18:48:41

Xing Lida gives a speech in Shanghai Natural History Museum on June 24, 2017. Photo: VCG

In a small town in northern Myanmar, a massive shootout takes place between government forces and local militants. Under a barrage of gunfire, a young Chinese man carries a fossil specimen and a camera as he runs through a hail of bullets.

This is not an excerpt from a novel or scene from an action movie, but the real story of Xing Lida, a Chinese paleontologist who came to Myanmar in search of dinosaur tracks.

The paleontologist from the China University of Geosciences in Beijing had taken his team to meticulously mark, measure and take photos on this land that contains potentially valuable dinosaur traces. 

Many on social media call him "the luckiest hands," as he has become famous for his stunning achievements in paleontology - he found the first ancient bird amber, the first dinosaur amber, the first baby bird amber, and many other potential "firsts" of the future.

His most remarkable discovery is a well-preserved fossil of the oldest bird-like dinosaur, which could prove that such feathered animals existed on Earth over 150 million years ago.

Xing's research is focused on archosaur tracks, and the relationships between tracks and skeleton records in Asia and North America. 

His passion has taken him to more than 100 sites scattered throughout China.

Race against time

For a long time, a lack of proper protective measures has left dinosaur tracks around the world vulnerable to weathering and destruction. This meant that time has always been a precious commodity for Xing, who visits as many sites as he can in one day and has even risked falling off cliffs on several occasions during his field trips. 

In a copper mine in Southwest China, he and his team spent a week collecting data from thousands of fossilized footprints. To do so, they had to scale a cliff in the rain with rocks above their heads that could have fallen at any time.

He sees himself as "loving a dinosaur as much as his buddy loves a girlfriend." In his eyes, fossilized dinosaur footprints tell stories that are as compelling as any Hollywood blockbuster.

From the end of 2013, he began going further afield to Mongolia, western Canada, the Korean peninsula, Iran and other places for amber investigation and research. 

He then paid more attention to the Mileid-Cretaceous vertebrate amber (avian/non-avian theropod) from Myanmar, with an emphasis on morphology, paleoecology and evolution.

Mining for amber 

For Xing, the mines of Myanmar are a treasure trove of dinosaur fossils, but sometimes the political instability there makes it an extremely dangerous place. 

It takes almost a day to travel less than 150 kilometers from Myitkyina to the mines, with the high risk of being caught in torrential rain.

Perhaps because of the danger and non-locals being excluded from the mines, Xing became the only paleontologist to visit the area, which had never been visited by scientists before.

Disguised as a local, he entered the mine several times and met many people connected to the amber business, including overseas Chinese, traders and workers digging for amber.

Though amber deposits are found all over the world, for Xing Lida, the mines of Kachin, Myanmar, are "irreplaceable." "The amber mining area in Kachin is the only Cretaceous period amber mining site in the world that is still engaged in commercial mining," he said to ScienceX, a leading web-based science, research and technology news service. "There's no better place than Myanmar."

In 2015, a Myanmar jewelry trader showed Xing a coat button-sized piece of amber that contained two claws on a fragment of a wing. On closer inspection, he realized that it might not be an ancient bird, but more likely dinosaur amber, as modern birds have almost no claws on their wings. He immediately decided to buy it, even though the price was high. 

After some bargaining, he bought the amber and took the earliest flight back to China. After scanning with a MicroCT and further examination, he proved that it contained the feathers and tiny tail of a baby dinosaur that lived around 99 million years ago.  

Had Xing not made the purchase, this valuable piece could have been sold as a pendant and ended up around someone's neck. The piece gave him a hard-won glimpse of the evolution and living habits of dinosaurs through analyzing the structure and materials of the feathers.

"He is essentially building the comprehensive framework for fossil track studies for China, where before there were only a few sporadic reports," Richard McCrea, a fossil footprint specialist at the Peace Region Paleontology Research Centre in Tumbler Ridge, Canada, and a mentor to Xing, said to Science, one of the world's top academic journals.

Spreading the knowledge

Xing has long been devoted to establishing an extensive network for amateur fossil hunters.

With 2.42 million followers on Weibo, this online celebrity is now gaining wider acceptance as a "science writer." His popularity is partly due to his ability to present the conclusions drawn from hundreds of published papers and hundreds of thousands of data sets in a light-hearted and humorous way. He has introduced paleontological knowledge to the public on CNN, China Central Television and other channels on many occasions.

In addition to scientific research, Xing has made many contributions to the popularization of dinosaur science, and has also published dozens of popular books on the subject.

In order to attract young children who are eager to learn more about dinosaurs, he has since written a number of articles on the subject of "dinosaur's meals" and compiled them into a book, presenting recipes from the dinosaur era while telling interesting dinosaur stories.
Newspaper headline: On the dinosaurs trail


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