About Xinjiang

History of Dinosaur Discoveries

Project Goals

Project Location

The Shishugou Formation

Links to Yearly Reports from the Field


A series of cooperative expeditions by scientists from George Washington University and the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology (IVPP), Beijing, began exploring for dinosaurs in Xinjiang, northwestern China in 2001. The dinosaur beds are in the late Middle to early Late Jurassic Shishugou Formation, one of the few fossil deposits preserving dinosaurs and their contemporaries from the time when dinosaurs had just begun to reach enormous sizes and dominate the world's terrestrial ecosystems. The expeditions are led by Xu Xing of the IVPP and James Clark of GWU. Dr. Xu is an internationally known expert on dinosaurs, especially the famous "feathered dinosaurs" of Liaoning, China. Jim Clark has spent the last twelve years working in Mongolia with the American Museum of Natural History, and with Mark Norell of the AMNH and Peter Makovicky of the Field Museum he has studied the theropod dinosaurs collected by those expeditions, including oviraptorid dinosaurs sitting on nests. They are joined by Catherine Forster, a professor at the State University of New York, Stony Brook, who specializes in ornithischian dinosaurs and has worked for many years in Madagascar; researcher Wang Yuan of the IVPP who specializes in fossil amphibians and reptiles; chief technician Wang Hai-jun and technician Huo Yu-long from the IVPP; students Brian Andres (GWU, now at Yale) and He Tao (IVPP); and several other participants.

Xinjiang has a rich cultural history extending back thousands of years. During China's golden age, the T'ang Dynasty (618-907), traders with their wares and religious pilgrims travelled in camel caravans along the ancient silk road, the northern branch of which passed along the south side of the Tianshan (the "mountains of heaven"). The walls and ceilings of caves in the Turpan area south of the Tianshan were painted with elaborate religious frescoes (above) by Buddhist hermits of the T'ang and later periods, and some of the oldest printed texts in the world were found in ancient cities buried in the sands of a desert with the forbidding name Taklamakan ("those who enter do not come out"). During the reign of the Mongol emperor Kublai Khan of the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368) the Venetian merchant Marco Polo traveled the silk road across Xinjiang, taking the northern route on his way to Beijing and the southern route home, where he recounted his adventures to disbelieving ears. The classic Ming Dynasty story Journey to the West is set in Xinjiang, and mentioned in it are the colorful fossil-bearing outcrops at the Flaming Mountain near Turpan. Mummies from Xinjiang with physical features of Europeans reflect the cultural interchanges that have given this area its reputation as the crossroads of Asia. Xinjiang is home to a variety of ethnic groups including Kazakhs, Mongolians, and Uyghurs, an islamic people of Turkic ancestry (the official name of Xinjiang is the "Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region," and historically this area is known as Chinese Turkestan), and in the last half of the 20th century many Han Chinese emigrated to Xinjiang from eastern China. Xinjiang ("new territory") was named by legendary Chinese General Zuo Zongtang of the Qing Dynasty (known in the west as General Tso, after whom the popular chicken dish is named), who quelled a rebellion attempting to establish the kingdom of Kashgaria by the Tajik adventurer Yakub Beg in 1877.

"In this desert [the Gobi] is a great multitude of evil spirits and also of hot winds; those who meet with them perish to the last man. Here there are fair birds above and beasts below. Gazing in every direction as far as the eye can reach to discover a path, one finds no guidance except from the mouldering bones of the dead that mark the way."
Fa Xian, 414 A.D., Record of Buddhist Countries

The first recorded dinosaur specimen discovered in Xinjiang was from the Junggar Basin north of the Tianshan, collected in 1928 by a party from an expedition led by the famous Swedish explorer Sven Hedin that included Yang Chung-chien (C.C. Young, seen with the young Zhao Xi-jing above), the father of Chinese vertebrate paleontology. This specimen, the sauropod Tienshanosaurus chitaiensis, was collected near Jiangjunmiao from beds later designated the Shishugou Formation. As related by Hedin ("Riddle of the Gobi," 1933), the discovery was made by Professor P.L. Yuan who "... on the crest of a red hill ... found small pieces of the metatarsus of a dinosaurus. He continued digging for fourteen days, and by the end of that time he had found in several different places in the valley fragments of thirty full-grown dinosauri, three young ones and one egg." Curiously, the description of these finds published by Dr. Young in 1937 mentions fewer individuals and no young or eggs.

The IVPP sent a series of successful expeditions to the Junggar Basin in the 1960s, 1970's, and early 1980s, exploring the Shishugou and other formations. These expeditions discovered several important fossils including the theropod Monolophosaurus, the sauropod Bellusaurus, and one of the oldest Chinese mammals, Klamelia. In the late 1980s outcrops of the Shishugou Formation at Jiangjunmiao yielded specimens of the long-necked sauropod Mamenchisaurus and the large carnivore Sinraptor to the Chinese-Canadian Dinosaur Project (CCDP), organized by the IVPP and the Ex Terra Foundation (involving the Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology and the Canadian Museum of Nature) and popularized through a National Geographic TV special.

Our work focuses on the small dinosaurs, which include primitive members of groups that went on to diversify in the Cretaceous period. We are particularly interested in finding specimens of the small theropod dinosaurs most closely related to birds, known as coelurosaurs, because only a few of the groups that should be present in the Late Jurassic have yet been found. The rarity of these small theropod groups from Late Jurassic deposits is probably due to a bias against small specimens of any kind in the few dinosaur-bearing formations of this age, and if this is true then the missing theropod groups should show up if enough small dinosaurs are found.

We are concentrating our efforts at outcrops of the Shishugou Formation in three areas spread out over 100 km - Wucaiwan, Jiangjunmiao, and Konglonggou - near the Huoshaoshan oil field. The earlier IVPP expeditions discovered important fossils at all of these localities, while the CCDP worked primarily at Jiangjunmiao and to a lesser extent at Wucaiwan. In the future we hope to explore the less accessible region between Konglonggou and Jiangjunmiao to find more localities. (Below, Landsat TM image from Earthsat; thanks to Doug Fuller, GWU, for help in processing.)

The Shishugou Formation derives its name ("stone tree valley") from the many beautiful silicified logs preserved within it, some buried while still standing. It is composed mainly of mudstones, siltstones, and sandstones deposited by rivers and lakes. Previous work on the fossils of the Shishugou Formation demonstrated that two different faunas are preserved within it. The older fauna, from the lower part of the formation, has some of the last known labyrinthodont amphibians ("crocamanders") as well as the sauropod dinosaurs Klamelisaurus and Bellusaurus and the large theropod Monolophosaurus. The younger fauna, from the upper part of the formation, produced the giant sauropod Mamenchisaurus and the large theropod Sinraptor. The lower part of the Shishugou Formation is sometimes given a different name, the "Wucaiwan Formation," but because it is difficult to pinpoint a layer marking the boundary between these two units in the field this distinction hasn't been followed by regional geologists.

Click on the images below to see images from the field and some of the results from our first two years:

We are extremely grateful for support from the National Geographic Society, the Hilmar Tharp Sallee Charitable Trust, the GW University Facilitating Fund, the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and the Jurassic Foundation. The Changji Autonomous Prefecture provided important logistical help and permission to work in the prefecture, and the Xinjiang branch of the Chinese Academy of Sciences facilitated our work there. Beginning in 2003 our work is sponsored by a grant from the NSF Division of Earth Sciences. We benefitted greatly from the advice of Professor Zhao Xi-jing based upon his many years of experience in Xinjiang. The George Washington University and the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology have assisted this project in many important ways.

© Copyright James Clark and Xu Xing, 2001