09.09.2012 - Natural Sciences Sector

Walking with Dinosaurs in China

© Longhushan Geopark

More than 300 geoparks dot the Chinese landscape, 26 of them forming part of UNESCO’s Global Network of National Geoparks. One of these geoparks is home to Peking Man, a 700 000-old specimen of Homo erectus whose discovery overturned previous theories about the chronology of human evolution. The geoparks are a veritable treasure trove for anyone curious about past climate or the species which once roamed over China’s territory. In April this year, Chinese scientists announced the discovery of by far the largest feathered dinosaur ever found, a carniverous giant measuring about 9 m in length and weighing 1 400 kg. It has been named Yutyrannus huali, a combination of Latin and Chinese meaning ‘beautifully feathered tyrant.’

Yutyrannus huali was found in northeast Liaoning Province by palaeontologists from the Chinese Academy of Sciences. Incredibly, they uncovered three near-complete skeletons. The new tyrannosauroid is considerably smaller than Tyrannosaurus rex but still 40 times the weight of the largest previously known feathered dinosaur discovered in the same region.

Yutyrannus dramatically increases the size range of dinosaurs for which we have definite evidence of feathers,’ observes Professor Xu Xing, research fellow at the Academy’s Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology and lead author of the study. ‘It is possible that feathers were much more widespread, at least among the meat-eating dinosaurs, than most scientists would have guessed even a few years ago. The feathers of Yutyrannus were more like the fuzzy down of a modern baby chick than the stiff plumes of an adult bird.’

The large size of Yutyrannus and the downy structure of its feathers would have made flight impossible but the feathers may have had another important function: insulation to keep warm. ‘The idea that primitive feathers could have been for insulation rather than flight has been around for a long time,’ observes Dr Corwin Sullivan, a Canadian palaeontologist involved in the study. ‘However, large-bodied animals typically retain heat quite easily and actually have more of a potential problem with overheating.’ That makes Yutyrannus a bit of a surprise. The explanation may be climate-related. While the Cretaceous Period (approx. 135−65 million years ago, Ma) was generally very warm, Yutyrannus lived about 125 Ma when temperatures may have been somewhat cooler.

Another new find concernsconcerns 1000 well-preserved dinosaur footprints connecting six sites in the core area of Yanqing National Geopark19 in Beijing, one of two Chinese geoparks applying to UNESCO for membership of the global network in 2013. Dinosaur footprints can give scientists an idea of the dinosaur’s size, gait and speed. Was it running? Was it walking on two legs or four? Did it drag its tail? This new discovery provides an excellent evolutionary sample to compare with later species found in the Yixian and Jiufotang Formations in northeastern China and dating from 133−120 Ma, which are known as the Jehol Biota.

Nurturing a geological treasure

In little over a decade, China’s geoparks have become a popular and economic success. By the end of 2010, one in three Chinese had visited one. Geotourism generates nearly US$24 billion a year in revenue and provides 2.4 million jobs. The geoparks have also boosted nearby service industries, as well as agriculture and construction. In return, the government has invested heavily in research and in protecting the parks, including through a massive popularization campaign. In little more than a decade, China has established more than 300 geoparks. The first 11 were set up with the assistance of UNESCO’s Division of Earth Sciences in 2000.

At the time, dinosaur fossil smuggling was a flourishing trade, with specimens sold on the black market fetching many times a farmer’s annual income. Over the past decade, the government has introduced a slew of regulations on fossil sales and smuggling which have managed to curtail the trade but not eradicate it. Officials are hopeful that a more educated population will prefer to report their finds rather than sell them. The government has invested US$1.36 billion since 2001 to protect the country’s geoparks and promote public awareness. The first step was to establish a database and dynamic monitoring system for each of the géoparcs. The landscapes and infrastructure of geosites were then cleared and restored.

Research bases have been established in over 200 geoparks. Since 2001, a total of 540 scientific research projects have been completed by scientists from research institutions and universi¬ties working in collaboration with their peers from geoparks. A further 175 projects are ongoing, for a total investment of around US$438 million. In all, scientists have published 3 094 papers on geoparks since 2001.

Nearly 700 seminars or summer camps have been organized for the general public by geopark administrators since 2001 and more than 1 700 books explaining the geosciences to the public have been published. The government has also built over 200 geomuseums since 2001. These employ 6 481 professional guides, one-quarter of whom (1 751) are trained geologists.

Today, China has three categories of geopark: global (26), national (140) and provincial. China is one of only a handful of countries with geoparks dotted all around the country, where the geoparks concept has been a tremendous success. It has boosted the local economy by creating job opportunities while preserving geoheritage and the environment, thus embracing sustainable development. Chinese geoparks will continue to develop but they are also keen to share their experiences of conservation and sustainable development, especially at a time when geoparks are becoming increasingly popular: as of June 2012, the global network counted 88 geoparks in 27 countries. Today, it is hard to imagine that, little more than a decade ago, there wasn’t a single geopark in China.

Authors: Hong Tianhua(1),Zheng Yuan(2) and Zhou Wei(3)

New geoparcs will be certified and included in the Global Geoparks Network during the 11th European géoparcs Network Conference on 19-21 September 2012. The Global Geoparks Network is supported by UNESCO at the request of Member States

Source: A World Of Science, Vol. 10, n°3 - July September 2012

Related links:

(1)    Deputy-Director and Secretary-General, International Centre on Space Technologies for Natural and Cultural Heritage, functioning under the auspices of UNESCO, and Centre for Earth Observation and Digital Earth of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing
(2)    Coordinator, Chinese Geoparks Network, Director of Geopark Promotion and Research Centre, Chinese Academy of Geological Sciences
(3)    Programme Assistant, International Centre on Space Technologies for Natural and Cultural Heritage and Centre for Earth Observation and Digital Earth

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