Dinosaurs: Ancient Fossils, New Discoveries California Academy of Sciences Dinosaurs - Ancient Fossils, New Discoveries

The Liaoning Forest

Liaoning Forest Diorama
Craig Chesek/AMNH
Liaoning Province in northeastern China is just a day's drive from Beijing. Liaoning ("lee-ow-NING") is known for its farmland and factories-and also for some of the most important fossil beds in the world.

Fossils of big animals are rare—and fossils of small organisms are rarer still, because small, delicate bodies decompose more readily than larger ones. However, in Liaoning even small animals and insects were well preserved.

Discovering fossils in Liaoning
from AMNH video © 2005

This is because when plants and animals died there, they often washed into one of the many streams and lakes in the region. More importantly, they were quickly covered in volcanic ash soon after death. Because the remains were buried so rapidly, many of the Liaoning fossils preserve much of the entire organism in remarkable detail.

In some fossils a ghostlike imprint is left showing not only the outside of a deceased animal's body, but also their bones. If one is lucky, faint colors and patterns like stripes and spots—even the shading of the eyes—can sometimes be seen.

Scientists aren't sure how colors and patterns were preserved in these fossils. Most likely, the colors in the fossils, just shades of gray, are not the colors of the animals in life. However, the plants and animals of 130 million years ago were surely just as colorful as those alive today.

:: Learn more the Liaoning Forest at AMNH ::

Evolution of Feathers

The level of detail that is visible in Liaoning fossils is important for other reasons. Delicate features like skin texture and feathers are clearly visible in many of the animal specimens and the discovery of numerous feathered dinosaurs in Liaoning continues to reveal important information about the origin of feathers and flight, as well as the evolution of birds.

Sinornithosaurus millennii fossil
© AMNH/Mick Ellison
When the fossil displayed at left was discovered in Liaoning, it joined a growing list of dinosaur fossils showing evidence of feathers. But this fossil is unique because the imprints of feathers are astonishingly clear. Look for this birdlike dinosaur, called Sinornithosaurus (sign-or-NITH-uh-sore-us), in the diorama.

Modern feathers consist of hundreds of thin fibers extending from a hollow shaft that runs the length of the feather. At the tip of each fiber are numerous tiny, hook-shaped structures that work like

© Craig Chesek/AMNH
Velcro™ to hold the feather together. This complicated structure evolved in multiple stages over many millions of years, and the fossils at Liaoning help demonstrate this.

  • STAGE ONE: thin, hollow filaments appeared over 150 million years ago
  • STAGE TWO: tufts of filaments that somewhat resemble down feathers
  • STAGE THREE: numerous filaments sticking out from a central shaft
  • STAGE FOUR: shaft located off-center; these feathers provide the aerodynamic lift needed for flight
  • :: Learn more about the evolution of feathers at AMNH ::

    © AMNH

    Flowering Plants

    We take flowering plants—called angiosperms—for granted in our modern world, because they are so common. 130 million years ago, however, there were very few flowering plants. The dominant trees were conifers, similar to today's pine and fir trees. Ginkgo trees and ferns were also common. In general, the plants were suited to a semiarid environment, suggesting that the climate in this part of eastern Asia at that time was warm but dry.

    Fortunately, in the ancient Liaoning forest, pieces of plants fell into lakes, sank to the bottom, were buried relatively quickly and eventually made excellent fossils. Now, in the Lioaning diorama, you will be able to see a scientifically accurate, hand crafterd representations of many of the plants found in this ancient forest.

    :: Learn more about ancient plants at AMNH ::

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