D I N O S S O A R
An Interview with Ji Qiang
(Conducted by Ted Chamberlain on June 19, 1998)
As Ji Qiang, director of the National Geological Museum in Beijing,
opened a green silk box in summer 1996, he realized with a gasp that he
was seeing, as they say, something completely different. Inside was one of
several recently found Chinese fossils that link birds to dinosaursfossils
that have made the exuberant Dr. Ji an authority on the subject. Along with
Philip Currie of the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Alberta, Canada, and Mark
Norell of New Yorks American Museum of Natural History, Ji unveiled
several of these fossils, and models based on them, at a press conference at
National Geographic Society headquarters in Washington, D.C.
The fossils are
- Protarchaeopteryx robusta: a 3-foot (0.9-meter) possible
precursor to Archaeopteryx, the earliest known bird;
- Caudipteryx zoui: a speedy, turkey-size runner covered with primitive
- Sinosauropteryx prima: a chicken-size Velociraptor doppelgänger
covered with featherlike filaments.
What was it like to open the box containing the Sinosauropteryx fossil?
When I got the specimen of Sinosauropteryx, I got very excited! I had never seen a
creature like this. [This fossil is marked by evidence of filaments rising off the hips
toward the tail; they could be precursors of avian flight feathers, or protofeathers, a
term coined by Dr. Ji.] In China we have a great debate over what these filaments are.
Some scientists say they are hair, but Im sure they are protofeathers. I knew these were
feathers, because only mammals have hair [and this was no mammal].
How is it that you are the recipient of so many significant fossils?
In recent years we found a rich fossil supply at Sihetun in Liaoning Province [in
northeastern China]. Here we have found very important fossils that are missing links
between dinosaurs and birds. The discovery of Sinosauropteryx, I think, is a BIG
discoverythe first real evidence that dinosaurs gave rise to birds. Before,
people thought that all animals with feathers were birds. But we found a dinosaur with
feathers. Its clear that dinosaurs gave rise to birds!
Do you and your colleagues agree on the significance of these specimens?
All three of us [Currie, Norell, and Ji] believe birds came from dinosaurs. But Currie and
Norell believe that Caudipteryx is a dinosaur; I believe that anything with
wings and flight feathers is a bird. I think Caudipteryx was running and jumping
and trying to fly, but he couldnt, because his feathers were symmetrical [without the
narrower leading edge needed for true flight] and too short. I think there is generally an evolutionary tendency
from Sinosauropteryx to Caudipteryx to Protarchaeopteryx to Archaeopteryx to modern
Have you had any difficulty taking the fossils out of China?
For me, it was very difficult to send these fossils to National Geographic.
You see, these fossils are very important, very rare. And this is the first time they will be
shownnot only outside China, but in the world! Not even my museum has displayed
Why did you pursue this press conference and the exhibit at the Society?
The aim is to advance international understanding. National Geographic and my
museum have a common end: public education.
What are your goals for the press conference?
I would like to make two points: First, the Chinese government is giving more
protection to fossils and fossil sites. Second, Chinese specialists do much work [in
paleontology] and publish many important papersbut in Chinese, so they dont get the
recognition they deserve.
Have you had any problems with smugglers in China?
It is illegal to smuggle vertebrate fossils in China or sell them on the black
market. Only museums and other state institutions can buy these fossils; fossils that belong to the
museum belong to China.
But Ive read of Sihetun farmers selling fossils on the black market.
The Sihetun village people are very, very poor, with no chance to go to school. So maybe
several years ago occasionally they found fossils and sold them. I am not sure
that they even knew of the laws against selling. But its changing. The government is
educating them. Now some of the villagers even give specimens to my museum. I usually
give them moneybut only as a reward.
Was it difficult to get clearance for National Geographic staff to visit the
No, not difficult, because NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC is very famous in China, and Chinese
people love this magazine.