Paleontologist's passion stays rooted in the past
Xing Lida, 39, spends his life looking for traces of dinosaurs that went extinct more than 60 million years ago.
Discovering any trace always excites the youthful paleontologist. He once found fossils with footprints of a dinosaur making a U-turn, the world's first evidence of such a maneuver. He was the first to identify tracks of a swimming theropod in China. And he made a mind-blowing find of parallel tracks left by dromaeosaurs in one site, indicating that the dinosaurs, which were previously thought to be solitary, lived in groups.
His latest discovery is a group of 80 million-year-old tracks left by at least eight dinosaurs in Fujian province. Such a diverse set of tracks will be part of his map of ancient dinosaur habitats across the country.
An associate professor at China University of Geosciences, Xing spends seven months a year living in rough terrain and weather to find tracks and fossils of dinosaurs scattered around the world.
Dinosaurs inhabited the world for some 160 million years. Studying them can help explain the evolution of life on Earth or answer questions about where humans come from and where we might go, Xing said.
"These are the ultimate questions of paleontology, the historical mission of all humanity and the purpose of my research," he said.
Xing's blockbuster discovery is a feathered dinosaur tail preserved in a palm-sized piece of amber.
In 2011, while studying in Canada for his master's in paleontology, he learned that dinosaur feathers could be preserved in fossil tree resin. He became a frequent traveler to amber-rich Myanmar, trekking by car, boat and elephant to amber markets.
One day in June 2016, Xing came across a vendor who said there was a special piece of amber with "plants" in it. After taking a close look, Xing believed it contained the remains of an ancient bird or a dinosaur. The amber set his heart racing, and he immediately took it home for research.
"When I showed the amber sample to my foreign colleagues, they were surprised," Xing recalled.
A team of more than 10 Chinese and foreign experts was set up to study it. After CT scans and microscopic analysis, they ascertained that the fossilized feathered tail, including bones, soft tissue and even feathers, came from a tiny dinosaur that lived about 99 million years ago.
In December 2016, Xing's team announced the unprecedented discovery, the first time dinosaur material had been found fossilized in amber. It was the world's top fossil find that year.
Dinosaur fossils preserved in amber are more precious than those in rock, as amber can hold the soft tissue, which can indicate what a dinosaur looked like, Xing said.
Xing's passion started in childhood with a book given to him by his grandfather. He was thrilled by the dinosaur stories and read them again and again.
In high school, he built a website sharing dinosaur information and news from home and abroad. It soon attracted amateurs and specialists.
Dong Zhiming, a paleontologist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, praised the website as "an important platform for professionals to learn the latest discoveries and research trends of paleontology".
At the time, few were aware it was the work of a 16-year-old student from Guangdong province.
In the eyes of his parents, however, studying dinosaurs was not a lucrative career. They chose finance as his major in university.
Xing grew bored after graduation and applied to study paleontology overseas. He became a student of Philip Currie, a Canadian paleontologist and real-life version of Alan Grant, a character in the Jurassic Park movies.
His chief obsession is footprint study, which Xing describes as similar to a criminal investigation.
"Just as the police can estimate the height and weight of a suspect by footprints taken at the scene of a crime, we can use fossilized footprints to estimate a dinosaur's species, walking speed and even environmental information of the dinosaur era," Xing said.
However, fossil hunters sometimes are treated with suspicion.
Several years ago, Xing and his colleagues were besieged by villagers after they mistakenly wandered into a graveyard during an expedition in northern China. The villagers thought they were grave robbers, and Xing had to call the police.
He is always at risk. A falling rock just missed his head but smashed his computer during a field trip to northwestern China. In Canada, Xing was struck by lightning in a river and fainted. When he woke up, he found himself clutching a fossil in his hands.
Even so, he is determined to accelerate his research. In 2012, after hearing of the discovery of dinosaur footprints in Sichuan province, Xing rushed to the site but found it destroyed by a local mining company. He and his colleagues still tried to document the fractions that remained.
Xing is also fascinated with online science popularization. His posts have attracted more than 5 million followers on Chinese social media, mostly teenagers, and he's a bestselling author of dinosaur-themed science fiction books.
His two boys are nicknamed "Little Dinosaur" and "Little Flying Dragon".
"Dinosaurs are extinct, but they have been restored in our hands. I am determined to tell their stories all my life," Xing said.