Based in Beijing, Richard Stone is the Asia News Editor for Science magazine. He wrote a story for the December issue of Smithsonian about extraordinary fossils of feathered dinosaurs found in China that show how birds evolved from dinosaurs.
What drew you to this story?
When I moved here in 2007, I had heard a lot about the feathered dinosaurs and these fantastic fossils. I was curious about them, and I wanted to do a story that would look with a fresh angle at something that had already been kind of in the public eye. People knew about the feathered dinosaurs, but a lot of people didn’t know what it all meant, what the implications were of finding these kinds of fossils.
How did you go about your reporting?
I started out contacting the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology here in Beijing, where a lot of these wonderful fossils end up. After making contact with the researchers there, it was a matter of persuading them to find time to either bring me out to the field site or direct me to people who could take me out to see the landscape where these fossils were being dug up. I was very fortunate that one of the most famous paleontologists here in China, Zhou Zhonghe, was going with a colleague up to northeastern China to look around for interesting specimens, and I could tag along with them on a fairly short trip to see the famous fossil beds.
What was your favorite moment?
By far, the highlight was getting down on my hands and knees with a hammer and cracking open these slabs of shale and just finding these fossils everywhere. I didn’t have the magical moment of finding a feathered dinosaur. That’s pretty rare. But I found all these ancient fish. I was just astounded at the level of detail that was preserved in the shale. A lot of the fish were only a couple inches long, but you could see their entire skeleton. Just to know that these fossils had been entombed in this landscape for so long, for 125 million years was really mind-boggling.
What was the biggest surprise?
Probably most surprising was that a lot of the best specimens are actually found by farmers in China. These farmers, in their spare time, are out digging around these superb fossil beds. The scientists don’t have the time or the resources to excavate to the kind of scale that the farmers are doing, and so this is the way that a lot of the really interesting feathered fossils have come into the public domain. It’s good that these fossils have been found. They really have told us so much about the origin of birds and the dinosaur-bird transition. But the down side is that farmers aren’t looking for additional evidence in the landscape around the fossil. So the scientists often don’t know precisely where the fossil was dug up. Then, they can’t get the contextual data. Also, the farmers unearthing the fossils pass them off to dealers. Some dealers are scientist-friendly. They will save specimens that they think are special. Other dealers have just as good an eye for what might be a fantastic new specimen, but rather than show it to the scientists, they’ll sell it to the highest bidder. Some really beautiful specimens have disappeared into private collections through this fossil trade here.
There is new legislation actually that will be put into law in January that should, in principle, tighten things up and make it a bit harder for high-value specimens to disappear through the fossil trade. But it’s hard to know how the law will be implemented and how it works out in practice, so the scientists right now are just basically holding their breath.