Monday, September 7, 2009

Bringing Dinosaurs to Life

On Saturday The Bookworm kicked off a month of evolution-themed events around the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin's birth. 

Last night I went to hear all about dinosaurs in Liaoning Province from Damien Leloup, managing director of the Yizhou Geological Park at the Dinosaur Museum in Liaoning.

The Frenchman has been there for the past few years, setting up the new museum about four hours' drive from Beijing. Visitors can not only check out dinosaur finds in the area, but also help dig for them too! The only drawback is that if you do find a dinosaur, you can't keep it.

Leloup says Liaoning is a place full of dinosaurs because over 100 million years ago it was a very lush place, similar to a swamp but not as humid. He added that the latest find there is the world's oldest flower. Lots of vegetation was growing in that area which was perfect for the mostly Psittacosaurus, meaning "parrot lizard". It's about the size of a cat and has beak-like mouth. It was a herbivore that had no teeth, so it would grab plants and leaves in its mouth and swallow them directly. He says in one Psittacosaurus, they found 50 small pebbles in its belly, used to help break down the leaves.
 
Liaoning is also the first place that found the oldest dinosaur fossils with feathers. The Microraptor had wings and hollow bones, with light leathery skin with bits of feathers on it. Leloup likes to think that dinosaurs didn't disappear -- they evolved into the birds and animals we know today.
 
The province also belongs to the Jehol Biota, or the ecosystem of northeastern China from 133 million to 120 million years ago. While Liaoning was a lush area, it also had many volcanoes that spewed mostly ash, not lava. As a result, many dinosaur fossils were found covered by volcanic ash.
 
Fossils, Leloup explains, are made by depriving the living things of oxygen. The dinosaurs are either covered in ash, like the people in Pompeii by Mount Vesuvius, or die in the water and are covered by mud. It is because the corpse is covered relatively quickly without oxygen that the fossils are so well preserved, showing a lot of detail. However the fossils we see today are not the actual bones of the dinosaurs, but the cavity left behind by the organic matter is replaced with sediment, sand and dust that builds up over time.
 
Also the dinosaur models in museums today are made from a pain-staking process. He explained that first of all, you have to make sure there are many other fossils of the same dinosaur available. If so, you can pick one of the better preserved ones and in a long process, carefully extract the fossil from the ground piece by piece. Then each is carefully made into a cast with silicon which the mold is then used to make the model.
 
The province was also home to Mamenchisaurus, dinosaurs with extremely long necks and tails. The head was very small, about 1/25th the size of the entire body. Because of its long neck, it was able to reach further up trees for foliage.
 
Leloup himself has an interesting story, as a man in his mid-30s he has accomplished quite a bit.
 
His grandfather was a paleontologist which sparked his own interest in dinosaurs. One day when he was in high school he didn't get good grades on his report card. He announced to his parents that he would quit school. That day he turned on the television and watched a program hosted by Jacques Cousteau.  
 
The next day he announced to his parents he wanted to work with the famed underwater explorer. He tracked down Cousteau's Paris address and went to see the man himself. Cousteau explained to him that if Leloup wanted to work with him, he would have to take certain subjects in university and after he graduated and he was still interested, he could work for the Cousteau Society.
 
Leloup followed Cousteau's instructions and they kept in touch during his four years in university. After he graduated, Cousteau's office called him and asked if he was still interested. He joined Cousteau on many adventures in Vietnam, Singapore, South Africa and Namibia. Later Leloup went on to explore a 1911 shipwreck in Australia, which went down a year before the Titanic.
 
Here in China he helped a German company form a joint venture with the Chinese government to build and run the first foreign-majority owned dinosaur museum. With a 51 percent stake, the company, with Leloup's direction, also aimed to be the first green museum in China, running on solar panels. Some 3,000 trees were planted in the area along with a man-made lake that now has a large population of fish, creating a mini eco-system in the area, as a way to try to recreate the environment hundreds of millions of years ago.
 
I hope to make it to the museum someday as it sounds too fascinating to resist... digging up a dinosaur... or two.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Good article, interesting man. Wish I would have been there, instead of watching dvd's at home... Okinawa