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Chinese Paleontology

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geologic time scale

China hosts a vast array of fossils representing a huge span of Earth’s geologic history, including fossils contained in the late Precambrian sedimentary rock deposits in Guizhou Province which represent the earliest known animal life on Earth, from 580 to 600 million years ago. These microscopic fossils have been intensively studied over the past decade and have become extremely significant in paleontological research. One of the most famous fossil deposits of China is found in neighboring Yunnan Province, where the Chengjiang fossil biota represents the earliest and best record of the "Cambrian explosion" of animal life from 530 million years ago. China also has rich fossil deposits dating from the rest of the Paleozoic which provide extensive evidence of marine life during this time. The end Permian extinction, the biggest mass extinction since the end of the Precambrian 542 million years ago, is also well-represented in sedimentary rock and fossil deposits of China. In fact, the global reference point in sedimentary rocks for the 252 million-year-old Permian-Triassic boundary, marking when this mass extinction occurred, is found at Meishan in Zhejiang Province. The Permian-Triassic boundary is also the boundary between the Paleozoic and the Mesozoic eras, with biotic differences between the two due to the effects of the mass extinction.

The Mesozoic rocks from China have also been critical for understanding the evolution of dinosaurs and many other organisms that lived with them. Celebrated marine deposits of Triassic age are distributed across southern China; these rocks have produced a plethora of fossils of aquatic reptiles and the diverse marine life that flourished in these ancient seas. The Triassic-Jurassic transition, a period of time that records the divergence of the main dinosaur lineages, is particularly well-represented in Yunnan Province. Extensive and fossiliferous rocks of Jurassic age also outcrop across western China, and their fossils have documented a wealth of dinosaurs and their contemporaries. Large exposures of Cretaceous sedimentary rocks exist along the entire northern area and eastern half of the country. Many Chinese Cretaceous sites have produced fossils significant for understanding the origin and subsequent evolution of many modern lineages of plants and animals, yet the most renowned Cretaceous biota in China is the Early Cretaceous Jehol Biota of Liaoning and Hebei provinces and the Nei Mongol Autonomous Region in the northeast of the country. These 130-120 million-year-old deposits have produced thousands of exquisitely preserved fossils, from plants and insects to fish and mammals. A diversity of feathered dinosaurs—key fossils documenting the dinosaurian ancestry of birds—have also been unearthed from these rocks.

Continental rocks of Cenozoic age are equally abundant throughout China, and these sediments have also produced a rich and diverse array of fossils. Cenozoic fossiliferous deposits are particularly well-exposed in the arid regions of northern China where spectacular sites have yielded a great variety of fossil mammals, though south China contains similarly important localities. The early Cenozoic mammals from China are especially significant because they bear direct evidence of the origin of many major groups; these fossils have documented the Asian origin of rodents, rabbits and hares, primates, rhinos, horses, and tapirs, and even cetaceans (whales and dolphins). Because of the central geographic location of this “Middle Kingdom”, connecting North America to the east and Europe to the west, China and its fossils have yielded unique information about the migration of ancient mammals as they roamed freely across the northern continents.  Chinese fossils from the late Cenozoic have also been vital for understanding the evolution of mammals. A key locality is the 13 million-year-old middle Miocene Tunggur exposures of Inner Mongolia, which has produced a wealth of very interesting mammals including the shovel-tusked elephant Platybelodon. Another important area, the remote Linxia Basin of Gansu Province, has recently produced significant mammalian fauna of the late Cenozoic. Located at the edge of the Tibetan Plateau, the astonishing quantity and variety of mammals from this geologic basin have clarified many paleontologic mysteries. Chinese Cenozoic fossils also include some of the earliest records of the human lineage outside Africa, as exemplified by the famous Zhoukoudian Cave man and the fossils of Homo erectus discovered at this Pleistocene Ice Age site.