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 dinosaurs—fossils 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 York’s 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 feathers; and
  • 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 I’m 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 discovery—the 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. It’s 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 couldn’t, 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 birds.

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 shown—not only outside China, but in the world! Not even my museum has displayed them!

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 papers—but in Chinese, so they don’t 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 I’ve 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 it’s changing. The government is educating them. Now some of the villagers even give specimens to my museum. I usually give them money—but only as a reward.

Was it difficult to get clearance for National Geographic staff to visit the dig site?

No, not difficult, because NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC is very famous in China, and Chinese people love this magazine.