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Hey – I tracked a Chinese dinosaur!

A small claim to fame….Last year I found some little dinosaur footprints in China, and the resulting paper has just been published on-line.

I spent a year at the Nanjing Institute of Geology and Palaeontology as a Visiting Professor. The first field trip was to the province of Sichuan, a couple of hours flying to the  west. There is a road cut near the town of Qili that cuts through rocks of Late Triassic-mid Jurassic age. It’s one of the important geological sections in the world for studying one of the ‘Big Five’ Extinction – the one that occurred at the Triassic-Jurassic boundary.

The view from our apartment in Qili, Sichuan.

To start with, there were five students, and three of us professors. Then just me and the students – all very nice, bright and smart people. We stayed in rooms on the 8th floor of an apartment building in Qili – no elevator, no lights in the stair well, and no running hot water. We mostly bused the few km to the site twice a day, although it was within walking distance. The bleak sleeping areas were well compensated for by the Sichuan food that we ate at a nearby restaurant.

The road cut runs through a gorge, with the river at the bottom flowing down and past Qili. Its advertised as a ‘scenic’ area, but there is a cement works. at the mouth of the gorge. Truck loads of Late Triassic limestone belted down the narrow gorge road every few minutes, blasting their massive horns at us, working on the side. At the cement works their roads were pulverised – creating a cloud of dust we had to pass through regularly. I’m told it used to be worked by convict labour.

The river in the Gorge just up from Qili – during a raging flood. The bridge at the old coal mine is in the distance, and a track that leads to the canal heads off to the right.

The coal mines in the gorge are inactive, or nearly so. But they are marked by heaps of coal spoil and equipment. To get down to the river was anything but easy, as it was steep and overgrown. I did manage to cut some steps down a scree slope, but the river was high – and soon after, all access was lost – there was torrential rain, and the river became a raging torrent.

In the meantime, when it wasn’t too wet, we worked along the road cut. But I really wanted to see the rocks along the river – as the surfaces and details were fresh, unlike the old road cut. On the other side of the gorge I could see a canal, and figured if I could walk along that, there were some other rock cuttings that might be interesting. The students insisted I take a walkie-talkie, and I clipped this on my belt. I crossed over the river on a bridge at an old coal mine and got to the canal.

The canal.

It suddenly didn’t look so easy. The canal wall was less wide than my boot was long. For most of the way on the right was a straight-down drop of about 3 m, into scrub or rocks. On the left, murky water barreled along the canal. I wouldn’t have got out had I slipped in. I put my arms out at right angles and started Jesus-walking. I hadn’t gone far when there was a ‘ping’ and my radio leapt off my belt and disappeared into the canal. The catch had failed. I continued my balancing act for nearly 400 m, before I was blocked by water being diverted to the river. There wasn’t too much to see and I still couldn’t get down.

I turned around and headed back. This time, after just a few meters, vertigo hit and I dropped to my backside. For the rest of the way I sidled along on my backside. Finally back to the bridge, up to the road, and met a student come to search for me. Of curse, I hadn’t answered my radio.

On one of the days I was scouting away down the Qili end, in the Jurassic. The layers of rock were almost vertical, and there was an odd kind of slot-cut, where some sandstone appeared to have been quarried out. At the edge were some boulders that seem to have tumbled down from higher up. They had beautifully preserved details of ripple structures – and there on the surface, something like little footprints that a big chook would make. Faint though – two clearer ones, and some fainter outlines (see featured image). Or was it my imagination?

I reported them to the group, but it wasn’t until a few days later that they got to see them. One evening we had all eaten and decided to have a slow wander up the road, and passed those boulders. I pointed out what I had seen and the students had no problem with them being dinosaur footprints. Some weeks later, I was at a conference in Shenyang, and happened to meet up with Australian dinosaur footprint guru Tony Thulborn. I showed him photos and he didn’t have the slightest doubt what they were.

Fossil ferns cover a bedding surface a few meters below where the footprints come from.

The footprint paper was first-authored by Dr Lida Xing, a dinosaur expert in Beijing. He regarded the tracks as ornithischian and compared them with Anomoepus. We never did locate the exact layer the prints fell from, but there are a range of other things in that sequence that would help understand the environment of the critter that produced them. Plant fossils are rare in this part of the section, but one (also loose) boulder from a little below the footprints, was covered in tiny fern fossils and a few horsetail stems. In another layer, bivalved moluscs, and in another, some strange objects, possibly coprolites. Together they are consistent with a river floodplain and lake-side environment.

What are these things? They are the only pebble-sized objects, but I think they are fossils rather than pebbles. They cover a bedding surface a few meters below where the footprints will come from.

The rains finally abated, and on the morning of the last day of the trip, me and one of the Chinese students set out to try and get back down to the river. Just as we arrived at the only spot to get down, a truck pulled up, and slowly raised its load – out of which crashed an enormous pile of rocks, exactly where I had made my little track down. The Chinese student accompanying me explained that the truck was dumping industrial rubbish that would then be “washed away”. Too dangerous, we gave it a miss.

The truck dumping waste into the gorge.

It wasn’t til the following year I made it down to that river. To me it was a gold mine – lots off interesting structures in the rocks. But that’s a story for another time.

Reference (click for downloadable pdf)

Lida Xing, L., Lockley, M.G., Wang, Y., Pole, M.S., Klein, H., Peng, G., Xie, X., Zhang, G., Deng, C., Burns, M.E., 2016. New Middle Jurassic dinosaur track record from northeastern Sichuan Province, China. Swiss J Palaeontol.

2 Comments

  1. Ross Peden

    Hi Mike – I enjoyed hearing of your little forays down in to the river valley, or even to get glimpses of potential fossil localities. The pebbly guys – sure look like fossilised coprolites, and the fern leaf impressions are clear- just like in NZ. The dinosaur foot prints are harder to see, but I can make out the ‘ three-pointed hen-like’ prints, about a third the size of your hammer. They look irregular, maybe more than one guy stalking along the mud-bed. Nice find.
    R

  2. mikepole

    Thanks Ross! Getting down to the river sure paid off in the end. Nice clean exposure. The dino prints were at the limit of what I was happy with, so it was nice when the experts had no problem with them. The coprolity things stuck out, partly because everything else was fine-grained, except for a bed of molluscs.

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