Classic Jurassic: Dazzling Chinese fossils offer portal into the past

Thu Mar 6, 2014 7:15pm EST
 
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By Will Dunham

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A spectacular array of beautifully preserved fossils unearthed in northeastern China over the past two decades provides a unique portal on life 160 million years ago in the Jurassic Period, an international team of scientists said this week.

Among them are outlandish feathered dinosaurs, a quirky flying reptile, the earliest known gliding mammal, the earliest known swimming mammal - and a salamander that turned up everywhere.

Writing in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, they said the plant and animal fossils collectively represent a distinct ecological grouping - or biota - of life forms that existed alongside one another.

The fossil record of life on Earth is notoriously spotty, with some spans of time remaining all but unknown. That is not the case in what these scientists call the Daohugou Biota, named for a village in the region the fossils have been found.

"It is an unprecedentedly good window into that particular place and time," paleontologist Corwin Sullivan of the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology in Beijing, who led the research, said in a telephone interview on Thursday.

"It is a time when a lot of interesting things are happening," paleontologist David Hone of Queen Mary University of London added in a telephone interview. "We've got feathered dinosaurs. We've got weird mammals. We've got fish. We've got lizards. We've got all this wonderful, wonderful stuff."

The fossils have been found in western Liaoning Province and nearby areas. It was an inland region filled with trees, dotted with lakes and teeming with life 160 million years ago.

The level of preservation has been exceptional, with only a handful of other places in the world offering fossils as good.   Continued...

 
A reconstruction of the Daohugou fauna in northeastern China during the Jurassic Period, featuring feathered dinosaurs, pterosaurs, early mammals and amphibians is pictured in this handout artist's illustration obtained by Reuters March 6, 2014. REUTERS/Copyright Julia Molnar 2013/Handout via Reuters