Visiting the Zigong Dinosaur Museum

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Michał Zatoń (Poland)

During the 8th International Congress on the Jurassic System 2010, which was held in Shehong, Sichuan Province in China, I had an opportunity to visit several palaeontological museums, exhibitions and geoparks. However, one of them exerted on me incredible impression – the Zigong Dinosaur Museum.

Fig. 1. Dinosaur Hall with sauropods. Shunosaurus lii on the right, Mamenchisaurus youngi on the left, and a theropod, Szechuanosaurus campi, in the background.

The Zigong Dinosaur Museum, known as the ‘Oriental Dragon Palace’, is located at Dashanpu, a town situated 11km northeast of the Zigong City in the Sichuan Province. The museum opened to the public in 1987 and was built on the site where a vast amount of more or less complete skeletons of a diverse range of dinosaurs (as well as other vertebrates) were discovered in the 1970s. It is China’s first museum to be built on the actual burial site of dinosaurs.

The museum covers 66,000m2 and the fossil bones are embedded within Middle Jurassic sandstone. To date, about 100 dinosaur skeletons have been excavated, of which 30 are more or less complete. As well as bones, dinosaur skin impressions have been discovered. Equally impressive are the complete skulls of dinosaurs found belonging to both herbivores and carnivores. In all, some 22 dinosaur species are known from the Zigong area, including three species of stegosaurids, two species of hypsilophodontids, three species of fabrosaurids, four species of megalosaurids, one species of plateosaurid and nine species of sauropods.

Fig. 2. A theropod, Gasosaurus constructus, pursuing a small ornithopod dinosaur, Agilisaurus louderbacki.

This species list is really impressive. However, another astonishing thing is the sheer number of sites where dinosaurs have been found in China. This can be seen on the distribution map of world dinosaur sites that hangs inside the museum. China, with its 50 sites, is the second best place in the world (after North America with 56 sites) for the number of dinosaur localities.

Fig. 3. An in situ accumulation of dinosaur bones and more or less articulated skeletons.

But what does the museum looks like? At the entrance to the museum area can be seen a huge building in a shape of a sauropod dinosaur, presumably a Diplodocus (as I guessed from the long neck and spines on the back). Next to it, there is a fountain with a pachycephalosaurid dinosaur hatching from the egg. Going further, there is a hill decorated with several different dinosaur replicas (unfortunately, not all made to scale), including a life-size theropod sculpture. Unfortunately, the replicas have not seen much renovation, as many of them bear signs of serious damage. However, the whole area around the museum, in the form of a park, is full of plants with ancient associations. You can see cycads, ginkgos and tree ferns – the plants that grew when dinosaurs roamed the land during the Mesozoic era.

Fig. 4. A stegosaurid dinosaur, Gigantospinosaurus sichuanensis.

On entering the museum building, you can go straight to the main dinosaur hall – my favourite – where you can see numerous skeletons displayed against a background of painted Jurassic scenery. The skeletons are located around the walls of the hall and also in its centre. In the museum, you can see some of the most spectacular skeletons in the world.

As a majority of the dinosaurs known are primarily of Upper Jurassic and Cretaceous in age, so the Middle Jurassic dinosaurs on display here serve as some kind of missing picture in our global understanding of dinosaur diversity and evolution. For example, you can see Omeisaurus tianfuensis (a large, long-necked sauropod), Shunosaurus lii (one of the best-preserved primitive sauropods in the world), Agilisaurus louderbacki (one of the best-preserved small ornithopod dinosaur), Gigantospinosaurus sichuanensis (the first-discovered stegosaurid dinosaur that possess a long spines articulated with its scapulars), Huayangosaurus taibaii (the most primitive and complete stegosaurid) and Yangchuanosaurus hepingensis (one of the best-preserved carnosaur dinosaur).

What is worth of stressing, and what I very much liked in this museum, is that the skeletons are displayed in as active animals, appearing as they would have done in life. You can see scenes of both love and death, and of solitary and social behaviour. You can see a theropod Gasosaurus hunting the small ornithopod Agilisaurus, or Yangchuanosaurus crushing Agilisaurus with its huge jaws. You can look at a herd of Agilisaurus dinosaurs walking next to each other, or view the parental care between an adult and juvenile sauropod (Omeisaurus). And what is also important is the fact that the skeletons are not crowded together. There is plenty of free space to walk and look. In this respect, it is worth going upstairs to look at the hall with all the skeletons from above, which constitutes a magnificent view.

Apart from the mounted skeletons in the hall, as already mentioned, there is also a display of an original accumulation of dinosaur bones and skeletons. The ‘dinosaur cemetery’, which was discovered during the early phases of excavation works, is so impressive that it was decided that the in situ ‘burial ground’ should be exposed for the visitors inside the building to see. Indeed, the dinosaur burial site is impressive simply for the sheer abundance of its fossils. Articulated vertebral columns and limbs, which have been cleaned and prepared, are clearly visible from the sightseeing platform.

The other original, but smaller, burial site can also be observed from above elsewhere in the museum. The number of both isolated bones and partially articulated skeletons is so large that it is easy to say that the site represents a Konzentrat-Lagerstätte, a term which simply refers to deposits in which fossils occur abundantly to form large concentrations of deposits. The burial site provides an excellent chance to find out about the taphonomic history of dead dinosaurs or, in other words, what the Zigong dinosaur skeletons underwent before they were finally buried. The preservation of isolated bones or partially articulated skeletons indicates the bodies were transported before deposition. The preservation of skin remnants of some of the dinosaurs also indicates that environmental conditions, at least in some places, during fossilisation of the dinosaur bodies were very favourable, in which decay was inhibited.

The dinosaur skeletons are not the only fossils in the museum. In separate halls, you can also see other vertebrates, such as flying reptiles, crocodilomorphs, pliosaurids and fishes. As well as a gift shop, the museum also offers a 4D cinema, where you can watch films, including about dinosaurs.

Fig. 5. Photo 6. A crocodilimorph – Hsisosuchus – an example of a non-dinosaur fossil at the museum.

In summary, the museum is impressive for its dinosaur fossils, in particular for their number, quality and exposition. It is not only recommended for children and amateurs, but also for scientists who haven’t seen it yet. I thoroughly recommend a visit.

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