Despite a trade plagued by forgeries and amateur digs that destroy excavation sites, paleontology in China is thriving—and so are its dinosaur museums. The fossil boom began in the 1990s. Since then, countless prehistoric species have been discovered, among them groundbreaking feathered dinosaurs which continue to give new clues into the evolution of birds. At the same time, dozens of fossil museums have sprung up across the country, with more opening every year. So tourists, take heart: In China, you don't have to be a paleontologist to get up and close to some of these fossil beauties.
1. Shandong Tianyu Nature Museum (Shandong Province, eastern China)
The Guinness Book of World Records ranked this museum as the largest dinosaur museum on the planet. Its dinosaur fossils, petrified remains, and early bird specimens number in the thousands. Its hundreds of Jurassic feathered dinosaurs collected here are the most impressive of any Chinese museum, says Zhou Zhonghe, director of the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology (IVPP) in Beijing. “I wonder how many stories will be disclosed out of this collection in the future,” he says.
2. Liaoning Paleontology Museum (Shenyang, Liaoning Province)
Since opening its doors in 2011, this museum has come to boast a collection of over 10,000 paleontological fossils and remains in a whopping 50,000 square feet of space. Its exhibit highlighting the “Top Ten Paleontological Biotas” of Liaoning, spans more than three billion years. The “Liaoning Giant Dinosaur Hall” features eight giant 'saurs excavated in the province, including the 50-foot long Liaoningotitan, shown here to the public for the first time. Even the architecture of the buildings is meant to evoke a prehistoric reptile, curving like a dinosaur’s spine and ribs juxtaposed against an ancient bedrock.
3. Beijing Museum of Natural History (Beijing)
The Jehol Biota—plant and animal life from roughly 130 million years ago in the early Cretaceous period—provides a crucial window into the evolution of birds. And this museum has one of the best collections of Jehol Biota fossils accessible to visitors, according to paleontologist Luis Chiappe, director of the Dinosaur Institute at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. In the Liaoning Province, no fewer than 53 species of birds from this era have been discovered so far.
Chiappe admires the Beijing Museum’s potential to engage visitors with that history. "Looking at the stunningly well-preserved fossils from the Jehol Biota you get transported back in deep time to the utterly different world of the dinosaurs," he says. Highlights include the Lufengosaurus huenei, the first dinosaur found in China, the 85-foot-long Mamenchisaurus jingyanensis, pterosaurs, and ichthyosaurs—aquatic reptiles that dominated the oceans.
4. Dalian Natural History Museum (Dalian, Liaoning Province)
This museum, located in the southernmost tip of Liaoning Province, boasts the first five dinosaur eggs ever discovered in China. It also holds a find many thought was lost to the ages: the specimens Endotherium niinomii and Teilhardosaurus carbonarius, preserved together on a slab of coal from a mine in Fuxin, Liaoning. The slab was initially unearthed by the Japanese during World War II. In the decades that followed, some believed it to be lost until it turned up in the collection room of the Dalian Natural History Museum. Resident paleontologist Shen Caizhi believes the most important specimen in this museum is the Psittacosaurus assemblage: 30 juvenile specimens and one larger skull preserved together. Some paleontologists believe it is the first direct evidence of parental care behavior in dinosaurs, while others contend it represents a nesting structure and post-hatching cooperation.
5. Paleozoological Museum of China (Beijing)
A particularly exciting specimen here is the holotype (the specimen used to describe a species for the first time) of Mei long. Mei is a small theropod dinosaur from Liaoning Province, found in a sleeping or resting posture. “It is the most completely three-dimensional preserved troodontid dinosaur specimen that I have ever seen,” says Chinese paleontologist Shen Caizhi. Other treasures at the museum include Mamenchisaurus, the world's longest-necked and Asia's largest dinosaur, Confuciousornis, the world's earliest beaked bird, and the best-preserved skeleton of Stegodon.
6. Beipiao Pterosaur Museum (Beipiao, Liaoning Province)
The world’s only pterosaur museum opened in 2016 in Beipiao, a city in the fossil rich Liaoning Province. These flying reptiles—neither dinosaurs or birds—lived from about 225 to 65 million years ago and are notable for their ability for powered flight, not just leaping or gliding. Some were as large as an F-16 fighter jet, and others as small as a paper airplane, according to the American Museum of Natural History. Only about 100 species of pterosaurs have been found so far, and more than 50 of those were found in China.
7. Zigong Dinosaur Museum (Zigong, Sichuan Province)
“It’s an incredible museum—like a dinosaur national monument but more impressive,” says Jingmai O’Connor, an American paleontologist with the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology in Beijing. Constructed over a massive exposed site covered in dinosaur fossils, the museum has an abundance of species including fish, amphibians, reptiles and mammals. The first discovery of dinosaurs in Zigong was in 1915. In 1977, the first organized dig was conducted at the Dashanpu Dinosaur Fossil Site, but it wasn’t until a subsequent dig in 1979 that the enormity of the fossils embedded there was revealed. Since 1989, Zigong has taken its exhibits around the world, travelling to more than 23 cities across five continents.
8. Sino-German Paleontology Museum (Jinzhou City, Liaoning Province)
A farmer’s accidental discovery of a dinosaur near Jinzhou, Liaoning Province, led to the creation of this museum, which opened in 2008. A sprawling complex, it covers 10 acres and includes a fossil museum, a petrified wood forest, an underwater artificial lake, Mongolian yurts and a park. According to the museum’s website, visitors can “experience the unique charm of fossils … and feel the mysterious geological processes of the geological layers.”
9. The Geological Museum of China (Beijing)
When the world’s first feathered dinosaur, Sinosauropteryx, was discovered by a Liaoning farmer in the mid-1990s, half of the specimen found its home here. (The Sinosauropteryx was preserved within two slabs and each was sold separately.) One of the oldest natural history museums in China since its opening in 1916, the museum hosts over 200,000 geological specimens, including the Shantungosaurus giganteus, a species of giant dinosaurs measuring 48 feet long. In addition to public displays, the museum houses a research organization.
10. Henan Geological Museum (Zhengzhou, Henan Province)
Dedicated to integrating scientific research and popular science, the museum’s highlights include the world’s largest nest of dinosaur egg fossils, the world earliest ginkgo fossils, dozens of feathered dinosaurs, and the Ruyangosaurus—Asia’s largest sauropod dinosaur and one of the biggest sauropods in the world. Interactive experiences include multimedia exhibits “The World of Dinosaurs,” “Running with Dinosaurs,” “Weight-to-Dinosaurs,” and “Dinosaur Puzzle.” The collections comprise more than 50,000 geological, mineral, and paleontological specimens from inside and outside the Henan Province.