Love of paleontology an accidental discovery for China’s No. 1 dino hunter

Professor Xu Xing of the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences at work. Prof Xu is widely recognised as China's No 1 dinosaur-hunter and the equivalent of America's famed paleontologist Jack Hor
Professor Xu Xing of the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences at work. Prof Xu is widely recognised as China's No 1 dinosaur-hunter and the equivalent of America's famed paleontologist Jack Horner. CHINA FOTO PRESS

BEIJING – At age 46, he has already identified some 60 new dinosaur species – more than any other dinosaur experts.

He has also helped prove that birds arose from dinosaurs and played a key role in exposing a hoax finding published in the esteemed National Geographic magazine.

Professor Xu Xing of the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences is widely recognised as China’s No 1 dinosaur-hunter and its equivalent of famed American paleontologist Jack Horner.

 
 

But he could have had a very different career had he not been assigned by the government in 1988 to study paleontology at the prestigious Peking University.

A native from the remote Ili prefecture in western China’s Xinjiang region, Prof Xu did not even know then about dinosaurs nor what paleontology was.

“Even our teacher didn’t know what it was, so we thought it must be something very modern. When I found out, I was very disappointed,” said Prof Xu, in an interview with the British daily Guardian in 2010.

He continued harbouring hopes of furthering his studies in economics and applied for a masters degree in paleontology only because it would let him stay on in Beijing.

Prof Xu discovered his love for dinosaurs only a year before finishing his masters programme in 1995.

That was when he was studying two specimens discovered by his adviser Zhao Xijin in the 1960s and 1970s, which turned out to be the earliest examples of ceratopsians.

The findings pushed back this dinosaur group’s existence by up to 30 million years, from the early Cretaceous period, which started 145 million years ago, to the middle or late Jurassic period.

“My excitement (over a fossil) is proportional to the information you get from it. And those were really exciting fossils,” Prof Xu told the British magazine Nature in 2012.

It helped that interest and awareness in dinosaur species were beginning to grow in China when he was working on his master’s thesis.

Among Prof Xu’s notable finds are the Microraptor, a tiny four-winged creature from the early Cretaceous that probably used its feathered limbs to glide; and the Guanlong, a primitive tyrannosaur with a huge crest on its head, found in northern Xinjiang and predating the T-Rex by around 95 million years.

Prof Xu’s peers believe his success boils down to his good people skills that have helped him obtain specimens and gain access to excavation sites, along with his patience and persistence.

But Prof Xu believes luck has played a big role, describing himself as “one of the luckiest people in the world because I have continued finding great species”. 

“That makes you even more addicted; it's like smoking,” he was quoted as saying in the Guardian report. 

However, success has come at a cost for Prof Xu, who has two teenaged sons. His first wife divorced him over his long absence from home, according to media reports. He has cut back on his travels to protect his family life.

“I want to keep my lucky streak going, but I also realise how important family life is to me,” he was quoted as saying in an interview in 2008 with the USA Today. 

kianbeng@sph.com.sg