National Geographic : 2017 Nov
78 national geographic • noVeMBer 2017 England—that have produced 90 percent of all pterosaur fossils. That’s not because those five countries were the only places pterosaurs existed in such diversity and abundance. Fragmentary fossils have turned up almost everywhere, even in Antarctica. Instead, paleontologists think the pterosaur diversity that used to exist everywhere is simply better preserved in those places by some quirk of geology. This is nowhere more beautifully true than in Liaoning. In the early Cretaceous, Lü says, Lia- oning’s temperate forests and shallow freshwater lakes supported a rich ecological community, in- cluding dinosaurs, early birds, and a large variety of pterosaurs. Violent storms and ashy volcanic eruptions now and then killed some animals suddenly and in large num- bers, perhaps slamming them out of the air onto the mudflats. These catastroph- ic events buried the victims quickly, sometimes anaero- bically, with sediments that have preserved specimens intact and in fine detail for more than a hundred mil- lion years. Paleontologists call such sites lagerstätte, from the German meaning roughly a “storehouse” of lost life. The results now turn up on hilly farms and eroding cliff faces all over Liaoning. They don’t look like much at first, a slab with a hint or two of bone. But after a preparator working at a microscope has meticu- lously removed eons of hardened sediment, they begin to take shape again. To a beginner’s eye, they look as if someone has played pick-up sticks with an odd assortment of lizard skulls and walk- ing poles. Or as if Wile E. Coyote has gone off a ski slope and gotten squashed flat beneath a huge boulder: legs akimbo, mouth agape, long, bony wing fingers all higgledy-piggledy askew. When you look at them one after another, though—at, say, the Beipiao Pterosaur Muse- um or at a recent pterosaur show at the Beijing Museum of Natural History—the fossils begin to make sense as individual species in all their Geological Sciences, against Xiaolin Wang, whose specimen-crammed office is at the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology (IVPP) in Beijing. Like Marsh and Cope, the two worked together in the beginning, then went their separate ways in a spirit of muted hostility. (“One mountain cannot contain two tigers,” says Shunx- ing Jiang, a paleontologist who works at IVPP.) In the 16 years since then, each has repeatedly one-upped the other, producing a combined total of more than 50 new pterosaur species—almost a quarter of all known pterosaurs. Some of those species will perhaps turn out to be invalid, as happens after every great burst of paleontologi- cal discovery. But each side also has many more discoveries still to come. “ They’d have to work nine to five for 10 years” to describe what they already have on hand, an outsider remarks, enviously. Hearing this, Jiang lifts his eyebrows, a little anx- iously, and says, “I think 10 years is not enough.” The bone-wars comparison is, however, a stretch, given the infighting that’s common in this contentious, esoter- ic field. “ We’re a very small group, and we don’t really get along,” one ptero- saur specialist says. The field, says another, “has a reputation for people who viciously despise one another.” Pterosaur researcher A will readi- ly volunteer that B is “a waste of carbon,” while C independently remarks of A that certain peo- ple “would happily see him at the bottom of the ocean.” Their combat is a natural by-product of all those optimistic hypotheses built on fragmen- tary evidence, and it makes the Chinese rivalry look like a tea party. Lü shrugs off talk of mutu- al loathing, and Wang manages to avoid talking about it at all. Their success, in any case, probably has as much to do with being in the right place at the right time as with competition. China is one of just five places in the world—together with Germany, Brazil, the United States, and The sight of so many weapons, so much hunger, such vibrant life frozen in stone is poignant.