Paleontologist Xu Xing has discovered so many dinosaurs he’s lost count.
A spreadsheet he brings up on the desktop computer in his fossil-filled office in Beijing stops at 57, but Xu says he thinks it’s more than 60.
Whatever the exact number, Xu has named more dinosaurs than any other living paleontologist, unearthing fossils in some of China’s remotest corners that have revolutionized our understanding of prehistory.
They include the 8-meter long gigantoraptor, which stood twice as high as any man and the one-fingered linhenykus that could have danced on your hand.
Dinosaurs: Feathered friends?
But it’s not just the sheer number of dinosaurs.
Xu and his Chinese colleagues have found evidence that dinosaurs were not the scaly, reptilian killers depicted in movies but feathered, furry and a lot more bird-like.
In fact, it’s now widely accepted that the birds that flap around our backyards are descended from dinosaurs. But this was just a controversial theory until 1996, when the first feathered fossil was unearthed in Liaoning Province, northern China – the sinosauropteryx.
“When that fossil made its way to the West, actually photographs of it, it was scintillating… it blew people away,” says Richard Stone, international news editor at Science magazine.
Since then, some 35 feathered dinosaurs have been discovered, mainly in China.
Although the fossil evidence has yet to be found, Xu believes the vast majority of dinosaurs would have had feathers or bristles – including the fearsome tyrannosaurus rex and hulking, pea-brained sauropods.
Why dinosaurs had feathers is a hotly debated question.
Few fuzzy dinosaurs flew – at least in the conventional sense.
It appears more likely their plumage was used to keep warm or for display – potentially to attract mates like a peacock and only later in their evolutionary history did feathers become useful for flight.
“We’ve found strange combinations for tail feathers that we just don’t see in living birds,” says Zhou Zhonghe, Xu’s colleague and the director of China’s Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology.
Zhou discovered the world’s oldest beaked bird and his research has shed light on the origins of flight.
China’s most renowned feathered discoveries include the epidexipteryx, which has four ribbon-like display feathers on its tail, the anchiornis huxley, the oldest feathered dinosaurs and, more recently, the four-winged zhenyuanlong suni.
At two-meters high, the zhenyuanlong is the largest winged dinosaur found but, although its short arms have substantial quill-like feathers, researchers think it couldn’t fly.
It was memorably described by one paleontologist as a “fluffy feathered poodle from hell.”
Popular culture has been slow to embrace these feathered dinosaurs that feel so different to the scaly, green creatures of childhood books.
The velociraptors that stalk the Jurassic movie franchise were reptilian predators, although the raptors in Disney Pixar’s new animated movie “The Good Dinosaur,” which premieres in the United States on Thursday, sport hairy mullets.
“A scaled animal looks cooler than a furry or feathered animal. They (film directors) want dinosaurs to be cold-blooded killing machines,” says Xu.
China's dinosaur discoveries
Pinned on the wall of Xu’s office are crayoned pictures of dinosaurs and hand-written letters from young fans and wannabe dinosaur hunters.
But growing up in the poor and remote province of Xinjiang in China’s far west, Xu hadn’t heard of dinosaurs until he went to university in Beijing, where his assigned major was paleontology.
He quickly took to the field and is now the most visible of a new generation of Chinese paleontologists – equally at ease on a remote dig and poring over fossils in the lab.
Xu says he’s addicted to his summertime trips into the wilds of the Gobi desert – living in tents and braving sandstorms, wolves and high temperatures. The team brings along live chickens for food.
“It’s like smoking – when I don’t go I miss it,” he says.
China’s reputation as a paleontological powerhouse is largely thanks to one fossil site – in Liaoning in northern China.
Here, 100 million years ago, ago dinosaurs died en masse, caught up in a massive series of volcanic eruptions, leaving behind a treasure trove of exquisitely preserved fossils with a level of detail seen at few other sites.
Some of the fossils of the feathered dinosaurs are so well preserved that researchers have been able to capture information from “melansomes” – tiny structures buried within feathers that give them color.
The results so far have been surprising. The sinosauptryx, the first feathered dinosaur, had a ginger and brown striped tail. The microraptor, a tiny relative of the T-Rex and one of Xu’s favorite discoveries, was a dark iridescent color – like a crow.
Even as China makes discoveries at an astonishing pace, the field faces challenges.
Many of the feathered fossils that have made Xu’s name were dug up by local farmers, uncovered as they worked their fields.
Trade in fossils has become a lucrative sideline for many local families but Xu, Zhou and their colleagues work with the farmers to make sure scientists gain access to the best specimens and they don’t end up in private hands.
But many are still lost from science.
“There are so many beautiful fossils in private collections – enough to make a good museum,” says Zhou.
The grey market trade thrives and it’s given rise to fakery – composites pasted together to look more spectacular – and Xu says that discoveries made by Chinese paleontologists are subject to extra scrutiny because of these concerns.
When Xu discovered the four-winged microraptor in 2003 there was still a great deal of skepticism over the existence of feathered dinosaurs and he faced questions from Western academics over the authenticity of the fossil.
Chinese authorities are cracking down on unauthorized digs – but Xu says that harsh measures are counterproductive.
“They are just farmers. They’re simply digging fossils to make some money to improve their life.”
Thanks to the discoveries made by Xu, Zhou and other researchers, Chinese paleontology’s standing in world science is at an all-time high.
But, worryingly for some, the field isn’t attracting much fresh talent.
Few students choose paleontology as a college major – so few that Peking University, the country’s top institution, has been lucky to admit one each year. In two of the last seven years, there were no applicants at all, according to the China Daily newspaper.
Dinosaurs in the movies
Experts say tuition fees have led to a preference for “useful” degrees such as business. Up until the 1980s, a university education was free and majors were assigned on enrollment.
And unlike Washington D.C. and London, Beijing doesn’t have a national museum of natural history that could inspire the next generation.
Most of China’s biggest fossil finds are stored off the beaten track in underfunded provincial museums, where exhibits are often poorly displayed.
“We do need more people to be curators in museums and teach in universities,” says Zhou.
But Xu is confident that China’s golden age of paleontology won’t be short-lived – though his own sons prefer computer games and pop music to dinosaurs.
In 2005, Xu published what he considers his biggest achievement – a simple 1,000 word essay that features in a textbook read by almost all Chinese grade-schoolers.
“It’s given me the chance to tell young kids about paleontology in China,” he says.
“This is way more important than any scientific paper.”