China is awash in dinosaur fossils. But who will dig them up?

Why We Wrote This

Behind every headline-making dino discovery are months or years of work. But even further back is inspiration. China’s top paleontologists hope to sell a new generation on their field – and childhood wonder is one place to start.

Lenora Chu
Chinese kindergartners visiting Shanghai’s Natural History Museum look excitedly ahead to the ‘Argentinosaurus’ just around the corner.

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Hordes of kindergartners flow toward the dinosaur section of Shanghai’s sparkling Natural History Museum, each child clutching hands with a pint-sized partner. “T. rex!” exclaims one tiny boy, pointing at the giant replica hovering over him. (Actually, it was an Argentinosaurus, not Tyrannosaurus rex.)

Today, the class is captivated. Will its interest last?

China has become a gold mine of fossil finds and now lays claim to more species discoveries than the United States. Liaoning province, for example, gave the world the first evidence that birds evolved from small meat-eating dinosaurs, and fossils out of neighboring Hebei province revealed a pivotal point in the evolution of flight.

But leading researchers worry over the pipeline of homegrown talent. The arcane routines of fieldwork and research are a tough sell to college students, especially in a heavily consumer society. It’s yet another paradox between the staggering opportunities offered by China’s size and scale, and a society that’s still adjusting to the G-forces of rapid development.

“Passion equals better science,” says Xu Xing, who has named more new species than any other living paleontologist. Now, he’s determined to spark that passion in new students. “The next generation is our hope,” he says.

China’s most famous paleontologists were accidental scholars.

The year Wang Min entered college, in 2005, China was still finding its way onto the dinosaur map. Competition on the national college entrance exam was fierce, Dr. Wang says, and choices were limited for people who scored in his range. He stumbled into geology and eventually became enamored with a subset of that department: paleontology.

When Dr. Wang decided to pursue a Ph.D. in the field, he didn’t tell his parents for years, until after he’d graduated and landed a job. 

“I didn’t want them to worry about my job prospects,” he says. “That would not be very helpful.”

What a difference a decade makes. Dr. Wang is now one of the country’s rising stars, having discovered the world’s oldest class of birds. Currently a researcher at Beijing’s Chinese Academy of Sciences, he hints at another groundbreaking discovery to come later this year.

As Dr. Wang has risen, so has China, in the paleontological world’s regard: The country now lays claim to more species discoveries than the United States, and new finds are happening at an astonishing rate. Just a month ago, scientists announced a well-preserved Qingjiang site dating back 518 million years that contains many previously unknown species, as well as soft-bodied organisms such jellyfish, which are rarely fossilized.

Yet China’s leading paleontologists worry about the pipeline of native talent. As the world’s scientists flock to China for dinosaur digs, the field hasn’t drawn young Chinese, who are graduating into a society that prioritizes urban living and material wealth over the arcane routine of fieldwork and research. It’s yet another paradox between the staggering opportunities offered by China’s size and scale, and a society that’s still adjusting to the G-forces of rapid development.

“In today’s social environment [in China], it’s normal for children to like dinosaurs, but it’s not seen as normal for adults to like dinosaurs,” says Zhao Chuang, a Beijing artist who builds intricate dinosaur replicas for clients including museums and schools. “The public’s interest in paleontology isn’t big.”

Courtesy of Jingmai O'Connor
Jingmai O'Connor, a paleontologist at Beijing’s Chinese Academy of Science, sits at the Shandong Tianyu Museum of Nature in Shandong province, China.

A national paradox

That’s a tough irony to swallow for a country that “has it all” when it comes to dinosaurs, writes Jingmai O’Connor of Beijing’s Chinese Academy of Sciences.

Indeed, China’s vast resources have produced extraordinary finds. Liaoning province – China’s veritable fossil gold mine – gave the world the first evidence that birds evolved from small meat-eating dinosaurs. Fossils out of neighboring Hebei province revealed a pivotal point in the evolution of flight. Other discoveries include the earliest animal embryos, and deposits of mammals that tell the story of the rise of the Himalayas.

China’s paleontological riches – and its potential – cannot be overestimated, researchers say. Take Anchiornis, a late-Jurassic era feathered dinosaur discovered in Liaoning. Over the mere decade since its naming, hundreds of fossils have been collected in China, and they’re all “greater than 90 percent complete, fully articulated and preserving feathers,” writes Dr. O’Connor in an email.

By comparison, we’ve known about the infamous Tyrannosaurus rex for more than a century. Yet there are only about 50 specimens, with the most complete skeleton logging in at 85%.

True to China’s commercial spirit, the dinosaur riches have turned legions of farmers, construction workers, and even provincial bureaucrats into amateur fossil hunters, looking to make a quick buck on the black market.

But they are day traders in China’s fossil ecosphere, not the professional scientists required for the painstaking work of excavation and research. And foreign scientists are “not allowed to freely collect in China,” Xiaoming Wang, paleontological curator at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, writes in an email. These circumstances make it especially critical that fossil-rich China creates homegrown paleontologists.

A quarter century ago, the popularity of the “Jurassic Park” films in the West drew hordes of young talent into the profession. But that didn’t happen in China.

Sparking curiosity

Museums are critical to nurturing interest, but institutions exist only in a handful of top-tier Chinese cities. “Kids need to be able to see ancient creatures, to be able to actively explore their interest – this is important,” Wang Min says.

Where there are museums – Liaoning province has about a dozen in various stages of development – there are often a lack of properly trained employees to build education programs. Another obstacle: The same consumerism that has catapulted Chinese buyers to the top of the luxury goods market makes lower-paying and relatively scarce academic jobs repellent. A Sina survey reveals paleontology ranks nearly 500th out of 1,433 college majors, sandwiched between “theater director” and “Sinhalese literature.”

On public interest, there’s work to do.

Yifan Xue, the poster child for lonely paleontology grads, insists things are looking up. In her graduation snapshot, she stands alone at Peking University looking somewhat piqued above the caption, “A group photo of paleontology majors, class of 2010.” It went viral. Nearly a decade later, she’s given up on paleontology and is studying for a Ph.D. in biomedical informatics at the University of Pittsburgh.

Still, Ms. Xue insists the field will be OK as long as it can attract “a few” passionate people. Unlike economics, law, or computer science, paleontology doesn’t directly push the development of society, and “it’s inevitably going to be less popular,” she writes in an email. “But that doesn’t mean paleontology is in crisis.”

Xu Xing, whose discoveries have made him a national treasure, was also an accidental scholar. When he was accepted to college, he was assigned to paleontology. Upon receiving the news, "I asked my high school teacher, ‘What's paleontology?’” he recalls. “Unfortunately he didn't know either.”

In the first years of his career, “I was just doing a job. ... I had to grow into my interest,” says Dr. Xu, who has named more new species than any other living paleontologist.

Yet “passion equals better science,” he says. He now considers his mission motivating young children and students to enter the sciences, and his writings about the link between dinosaurs and birds are included in every fourth-grade Chinese language textbook. “The next generation is our hope.”

Indeed, Wang Min says, there are side benefits to dinosaur study. “You may make more money in IT, but in paleontology you can get close to nature.”

Magical wonder

At Shanghai’s sparkling Natural History Museum on a Tuesday morning, dinosaurs’ magic was on full display.

A group of middle schoolers from a Tibetan county in Qinghai province filed in. Their county is among China’s poorest, and the dozen students were hand-selected by test scores to visit tier-one museums in Shanghai as part of a government-sponsored trip.

“I like gorillas,” one girl said while sauntering by a dinosaur exhibit. “Where are the gorillas?”

Yan Liming, president of the Qinghai Women’s Federation that helped fund the trip, walked behind her. These trips are critical to expose the children to concepts they’d only “read about in textbooks or see on television,” she says.

Behind the Qinghai group, hordes of kindergartners flowed toward the dinosaur section, each child clutching hands with a pint-sized partner. Teachers, some raising colorful flags high above their heads, barked orders.

“Look at the dinosaurs!”

“Hold hands!”

“Come see the dinosaurs!”

Bawanglong! – T. rex!” – exclaimed a tiny boy, pointing at the giant dinosaur replica hovering over him. Actually, it was an Argentinosaurus, not Tyrannosaurus rex.

No matter. The boy was here alongside his classmates, and all were completely captivated.

It’s a start.

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