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Our Fascination with Dinosaurs and Other Fossils

A neighborly collaboration evolves into the Center for Chinese Fossil Discoveries.

By Susan Andrews
September 15, 2009


Center for Chinese Fossil Discoveries
Video by Mira Zimet

Similar to the fossils they study, it took some time for David Bottjer, professor of earth and biological sciences in USC College, and Luis Chiappe, director and curator of the National History Museum, to establish the College's Center for Chinese Fossil Discoveries, though not in the range of 200 million to a billion years.

The center emphasizes graduate education and encourages undergraduate participation. “We have a successful example of a new enterprise and partnership between two world-class organizations — USC and the museum,” Chiappe, also an adjunct professor of earth and biological sciences at the College, said.

Bottjer and Chiappe are paleontologists, the former a distinguished expert in fossil marine life and the latter world-renowned for the study of fossil birds and their dinosaurian predecessors. Bottjer stated that the field of paleontology is, in essence, “biological data turned to stone.”

But what is so significant about the study of fossils from hundreds of millions of years ago that most of us can’t even fathom without a degree in time travel? The answer lies in biodiversity loss—what is happening today happened in the past. Humans are causing biodiversity loss on earth today and similar sorts of things occurred before, according to Bottjer. “The increase in CO2 in the atmosphere today does not occur naturally; it is rather anthropocentric in that people are inducing mass extinction,” he said.

The earliest animal life fossil evidence dates back to around 600 million years. Bottjer and other paleontologists seek answers to how animals evolved on earth. “For those interested in this field, you can visit L.A.’s La Brea Tar Pits to find out about the last Ice Age — back roughly 40,000 years,” Bottjer said.

Even closer to home for USC students is the museum across the street from campus on Exposition Boulevard. “USC and the museum are wonderful partners: the museum has a tremendous collection of fossils, and USC students and faculty are an outstanding resource,” Chiappe said. “The center’s mission is to seek new partnerships with Chinese institutions; augment the level of research based on Chinese fossils; and discover new ways to conduct increased research and involve more students.”

“China opened up to science in a big way about 20 years ago,” Bottjer explained. “Luis and I both study how life evolved on earth and if you are engaged in this research, you want great material. And it turns out it’s in China.”

Chiappe said that the fossils coming from China range from the microscopic, to birds, to mammals. “Every evolutionary stage is represented in China and the quality and quantity of fossils is unprecedented. Before we could not base our research on fossil birds on more than 25 mostly incomplete specimens and now we have complete specimens numbering in the hundreds,” he said.

Students measure and prepare the bones from field excavations that are on loan from China. This summer, USC College doctoral candidate Jingmai O’Connor could be seen preparing Chinese fossils in the museum’s dinosaur laboratory in what they refer to as a “paleo-odyssey.”

“This is a working conservation lab for public viewing that is dedicated to preparing mainly dinosaur fossils. Museum visitors can see first-hand the preparation of a five-foot Brachiosaurus arm bone, or on a much different level, a tiny lizard,” Chiappe said.

O’Connor speaks with clear appreciation of China’s fossils, especially those from the Gansu province. “You see shelf after shelf lined with skulls of rhinos. Then you see the fossils of this big animal called Dinocrocuta with a skull as big as a lion, tiny little eyes like a hyena — imagine this thing coming after you,” she said.

According to O’Connor, half of paleontologists love dinosaurs as a kid and the other half will develop an appreciation. “I fall into the latter category,” she said. O’Connor is not particularly fond of birds though she studies them now.

In fact, O’Connor was once chased by a chicken in China. But that’s another story. “I became fascinated by the dinosaurs that I study, like the Chinese four-winged Microraptor and the long feathers it carried on its hind legs.”

What is it that fascinates about dinosaurs? Chiappe paused for a moment and then said: “There is no modern analogue — saber-tooth cats and mammoths are fascinating, but lions, tigers and elephants look alike,” he said. “Dinosaurs are old and bizarre; they had weird head gear; they were fearsome predators; and they were of colossal size. We are fascinated by what scares us; yet, we feel safe within the confines of a museum.”

For the next two years, the museum will continue to prepare a wide range of dinosaurs in its public viewing dinosaur laboratory. The museum plans to display these and many other fossils in two new galleries slated to open in 2011.

Dinosaurs might not be as extinct as you think. Look up in the sky and there may be a flock of flying dinosaurs — scientifically speaking that is. According to Chiappe, there is plenty of evidence that modern-day birds are remnants of a glorious background of dinosaurs.