Editor's Note: MSU China Paleontology Expedition is a project led by Frankie D. Jackson and David J. Varricchio, professors in the Department of Earth Sciences, Dinosaur Paleontology at Montana State University and Jin Xingsheng, paleontologist and Vice Director of the Zhejiang Natural History Museum in Hangzhou, China. This is the second year this program sent students - primarily from small junior and tribal colleges - to China for paleontological work. This year's students are currently in China, studying dinosaur eggs, as well as Chinese culture.
Paleontological fieldwork varies greatly across different parts of the world. This is due to cultural variation as well as the dictates of geography.
In Montana, we tend to identify places where rocks of the right age are exposed by looking at geological maps generated by agencies such as the United States Geological Survey (USGS). When we find an area that might be promising, we then drive out and camp somewhere nearby, hiking to find outcropping rock and then prospecting over that rock for pieces of bone (or eggshell) that might be peeking out. We never start digging without first finding some part of the fossil which has already been uncovered by blowing wind or pelting rain.
Permits to collect are acquired from the US Forest Service or the Bureau of Land Management, or a deal is reached with the land owner. This is important because fossils of vertebrate organisms found on public land are held in trust by the federal government for all Americans and not just anyone can collect them, whereas anything found on private land belongs to the landowner.
Other countries have very different rules governing the ownership and sale of fossil material. In China, it is illegal to export any vertebrate fossils for sale, while there seems to be little or no regulation on their sale within the country. In fact the majority of fossils in museums in China are actually acquired through the farmers whose fields produce the material, not through fieldwork at all.
This means that for the most part museums do not run many of their own digs in the eastern, more densely populated part of the country. Museums like the IVPP (Institute for Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology) in Beijing may run field camps in the far western portions of China, out in the Gobi desert. These might be a little bit more like those done by the Museum of the Rockies or other museums in the United States.
But here in Zhejiang province we are mostly looking at exposed rock in farmer’s fields so even when we go out to do fieldwork with our hosts from the Zhejiang Museum of Natural History (ZMNH) there’s nowhere to camp. Instead of roughing it, we stay in hotels. Hospitality becomes an important part of the trip; dinners with the staffs of local museums might go late into the evening. Our hosts often joke that the dinosaurs in Zhejiang go to where the good food is! So you can imagine we’re having a very different experience than hunting for fossils in the badlands of Montana.
Another major difference is that Eastern China is largely blessed with fertile, rainy climate which means that all manners of greenery run rampant; this is after all the region which gifted us with kudzu vine. The consequence for paleontologists is that instead of the picturesque but rather empty expanses of the American West, we are faced with a riot of vegetation that struggles to cover every inch of bare ground, and nearly succeeds.
As a biologist, I know the devastation and loss of habitat that would occur, but in the darker recesses of my soul I sometimes wish for massive forest fires so that we might have more rock exposed to explore. But we must make do with those few places where erosion outpaces the fast plant growth and so we sometimes spend nearly as much time finding the rocks as looking at them.
This year we were lucky enough to be joined by a local farmer, who was very helpful in locating good sites to prospect. It was a very successful fieldtrip this year, especially for such a short amount of time, but I’ll let the students tell you how we made out.
Photos: Josette Wooden Legs
About the Author: Ashley Poust is a graduate student with Dave Varricchio. After graduating from Augustana College in Rock Island, Ill., he lived for a year in Wuhan, China and taught English at the Central China Normal University. Ash’s work concerns primarily small Chinese feathered theropods, but he also dabbles in pterosaurs and mammals. When he isn’t thinking evolutionarily, he loves hiking, cooking, and playing racquetball and guitar. Ash will be attending the University of California at Berkeley next year to earn his doctorate in biology. He is very excited to participate in this trip and help introduce the wonders of China to a new generation of students.
The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.