Thursday, January 19, 2012

Armoured Dinosaur Discovery From China

A joint Japanese and Chinese team of palaeontologists have announced the discovery of a new dinosaur species that roamed eastern China approximately one hundred million years ago, (the Albian stage of the middle Cretaceous). The animal was found in the south-western region of Zhejiang province, when workmen building a road in twelve years ago, close to the city of Lishui unearthed the first of a series of well- preserved bones. A number of Japanese researchers and field staff have joined the scientific teams working in China to help explore and excavate the many numerous dinosaur fossil finds - part of an extensive co-operation project led by the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

As geologists map out in detail the geology of the more remote areas of China and construction of roads and other engineering projects take place, so a number of amazing dinosaur fossil discoveries are being made. Officials and local area administrators are keen to stop any such geological surveys or construction projects, at least to allow palaeontologists to examine any fossil bones discovered. The diligence shown by local officials when dinosaur and other prehistoric animal fossil bones are discovered has enabled the country to amass a huge amount of fossil material. For example, the vertebrate fossil collection at the Beijing based Institute of Vertebrate Palaeontology and Palaeoanthropology has an estimated two hundred and fifty thousand bones in its collection. This makes this scientific institution the World's record holder for the most amount of vertebrate fossils stored in the same place.

New Armoured Dinosaur Discovered

From one particular site, part of a highway construction project, the joint Sino/Japanese team were able to unearth a substantial portion of the skeleton of a new type of armoured dinosaur.

Post cranial bones, parts of the pelvis, the two hind-limbs plus tail and back vertebrae were recovered from the site, enough to permit the scientists to identify this as a brand new species of dinosaur. The animal has been named Zhejiangosaurus lishuiensis (in honour of the province and the nearby city). It was a Nodosaurid, an armoured dinosaur similar to the better known Ankylosaurs but without the characteristic tail club. The animal, believed to be a fully grown adult was over six metres long but with a squat gait, typical of a Nodosaur only reaching a height of one metre at the shoulders. It was a herbivore, part of group of dinosaurs that are regarded as more primitive than the better-known Ankylosaurs. Nodosaurs had body armour that consisted of plates, spines and spikes and this new fossil find represents one of the largest species known to science.

A new Dinosaur - Zhejiangosaurus

Palaeontologists believe that Nodosaurs such as Zhejiangosaurus had a more specialised diet than their Ankylosaur cousins, as shown by their narrow, sleek jaws and finer teeth. They may have been croppers of plant material and quite selective in terms of the vegetation that they faced. The body armour and defensive spikes would have helped protect these slow-moving herbivores from the many types of carnivorous dinosaur that lived in China during the Cretaceous period.

This peaceful herbivore is a rare find. Nodosaurs are much better known from North America with very finds from what was eastern Laurasia, the only other Chinese Nodosaur remains found to date are from the Henan province in central China.

The team's work has just been published in an English language academic quarterly magazine produced by the Geological Society of China. The fossils (classification code ZNHM M8718), are on display at the Zhejiang Provincial Museum of Natural History and it is hoped that a life-size reconstruction of Zhejiangosaurus will be added to the exhibit in the near future.

Helping to Determine the Origins of the Nodosaurids

The fossils are an important discovery, helping scientists to piece together (literally in the case of fossil specimen reconstruction), more information regarding the evolution and diversification of the Nodosaurid dinosaurs. Most Nodosaur fossils have been found in western North America although the first fossils of this type of dinosaur were discovered in southern England.

A number of palaeontologists have expressed an interest in an exchange of fossil material between China, museums based in the United States and specimens preserved in the collection of the Natural History Museum in London. This would permit scientists to gain a better understanding of how to classify Nodosaurids into a specific clade and allow them to theorise on how the Nodosaurs evolved and where they originated from.

Construction workers building the road network in the area where the fossils were found have been briefed on what to do if they find any other fossilised bones during the construction work. The workers have been reminded that there are strict penalties for anyone caught attempting to sell a fossil on the black market. Although private collectors are prepared to pay large sums for dinosaur bones, those involved in the illegal supply of such items, if caught will face high fines and in many cases a prison sentence. The Chinese authorities are keen to clamp down on any illegal sales of fossil material and the country has some of the strictest regulations concerning the sale of fossils and other ancient artefacts of any country in the world.

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