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.

Permian-Triassic boundary. (Photo by Josette Wooden Legs).

Today we went to the type-locality of the Permian-Triassic Boundary. The type locality is chosen by an international committee with the availability of the location being an important aspect, so that other scientists might visit the site.  Having a definition for a stratigraphic boundary is important and helps us to determine the exact timing of the periods we use to divide up the distant past.

The Permian which ended with the largest extinction in the history of life, is defined by the fossils found within, notably the conodonts. Conodonts are small tooth-like fossils made of a phosphatic material which have been used to correlate rocks for over 150 years. Even with all their use in iostratigraphy, no one knew what the animal they came from looked like until the 1980′s when the first conodont-animals were described – and turned out to be early vertebrates, fish-like creatures related to us!

The entrance had fossil conodont shapes and ammonite statues on top of the building. (Photo by Josette Wooden Legs).

We started the day with a two-hour bus ride out of Hangzhou, driving on the Chinese version of an interstate.  When we pulled off onto our exit, we saw two large cylinder-like shapes that at first looked like a nuclear power plant, but we found out it was just a coal-powered plant.  We drove down some paved side-roads, where we were just expecting a labeled road-cut or even a small hike to the boundary rocks; instead we a found a geology wonderland.

At first we thought we were at a particularly nice rest-stop, but then we sighted the monuments to the conodonts. The entrance had fossil conodont shapes and ammonite statues on top of the building.  We got in and discovered beautiful paths with ammonite shapes carved in and exquisite fish laid out in stones, as well as, you guessed it: more giant statues of conodont teeth.  The museum at the end of the walkway was mostly in Chinese, but we all enjoyed looking at different rocks and minerals and then proceeded onto a hall with fossils and dinosaurs on display.

(Photo by Josette Wooden Legs).

The last hall had information about the boundary and Ashley got up close and personal with some Conodonts. We walked up a stony path to look at the boundary. Sadly, construction prevented us from looking at the Triassic section, so we were only able to check out the Permian rock. 

(Photo by Josette Wooden Legs).

After lunch with the directors of the park, we went to a 4D movie at the museum. While in Chinese, it was very entertaining as it animated the history of life, with special attention to the Permian.  Bubbles appeared and the chairs moved and shook to go along with the movie; at the end the chair even poked us in the back! But it wasn’t malicious; it was just trying to emphasize the importance of the extinction event. Overall, it was a day of surprise and fun at a Permo-Triassic wonderland.

4-D movies in China. (Photo by Josette Wooden Legs).

About the Authors:

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.

Hannah Susorney is originally from Marquette, Mich. She just finished her sophomore year at Montana State University with a major in geology. She found out about this program from the group that went last year. She spends her time in Bozeman hiking, reading and dressing her cat up in cute outfits.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.