Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Strange Woman Interviews: Lida Xing

Lida Xing at a track site in China.
Hello, Dear Readers!

Welcome to what I hope will be the first installment of a series of interviews with fellow paleontologists, technicians, paleo artists, and anyone who is passionate about working with fossils. If you have any ideas of themes and/or people from whom you would like to hear, please send me a comment! I'll see what sorts of bribes I will have to offer to get interviews (I am joking, of course: we're all a fairly easy-going bunch.)

My premiere interview is with friend and fellow ichnology worker Lida Xing. Lida's focus is not only tracks, but the fascinating fauna of the Mesozoic of China. He is currently doing fieldwork in China, so I conducted this interview via email. I definitely have follow-up questions to his responses, but field work takes people away for multiple days from both technology and civilization. I will update this version of the interview as soon as possible.

SAS: First, introduce yourself to the readers. Who are you, and what is your position? 

LX: My name is Lida Xing. My family name, Xing, can be traced back to the descendant of the Duck of Zhou, who established the ritual music system in A.D. 3000. The first name, Lida, is derived from the Confucian Analects, meaning “the man of perfect virtue, wishing to be established himself, seeks also to establish others; wishing to be enlarged himself, he seeks also to enlarge others”. Since I’m the oldest son of my clan, I’ve been counted on by family to succeed. However, I have not engaged in the career of finance, or become a lawyer or doctor as they wished, but I’ve chosen paleontology, which was unheard of to them.

SAS: How long have you been interested in paleontology? When did you decide that would be your choice of career? 

LX: Paleontology is really attractive. When I was three or four years old, my grandmother told me the stories from the popular science books. The huge brontosaurus roaming in the water appealed to me then. I began to adore such huge animals. My family supported my hobby. However, they also told me that “the hobby is the hobby.” My career was arranged to be a journalist, a lawyer or to get into the finance field. In my spare time, I kept my hobby. Dong Zhiming, my tutor (then at the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology), also told me that one cannot visit the fossil sites everywhere if one lacks a sufficient budget. First I took those suggestions. After my graduation from the finance college, I became a journalist focused at economic field. However, when I started working for the job, two months later I had realized that I had not enough time to pay attention to my beloved dinosaurs at all! Thus, after a fierce argument with my family, I quit my job and started my paleontology career.

SAS: Describe your job and academic position right now. What does Lida Xing do during a regular non-field day? 

LX: I don’t think I’ve had too many great achievements. [SAS NOTE: I beg to differ.] But I’m proud that, since 2007, my efforts have facilitated two results. One is that the massive attention in China towards dinosaurs have been greatly enhanced. I’ve poured great energy in to the popularization of paleontology, and that includes composing abundant articles. Some have been published as books. Another one is that my work has protected some dinosaur tracksites against being destroyed, to keep them preserved, or at least the models [of these tracks] are fully saved. During the non-field days, I travel with my wife. We have been to Egypt and many Chinese tourist attractions.

SAS: You do a great deal of field work around China. Where have been your favorite field sites to work? 

LX: To be honest, I love every field site. But the most impressive site is the site where I first encountered dinosaur tracks. That is in Qijiang, Chongqing. The site was even full of garbage. Earth filled in the footprints. We even saw bats and owls hanging on the cliff. Nowadays, a national geopark with perfect facilities is emerging there. I have been witness to the changes in Qijiang every year, and that is interesting to me.

SAS: What are the challenges you face doing field work? Where has been the most difficult area in which to do fieldwork? 

LX: The greatest challenge is doubtlessly the financing. In the early years, I had to raise funds for myself. It always takes a long while to get the government to financially support a project. When you’ve done, the fossil site has probably been destroyed. I still remember that: we were searching for the dinosaur tracks, while the nearby mine was blown up. It’s the most dangerous situation we experienced. We had no protection then.

SAS: You have been first author on many exciting dinosaur papers. The two that pop to mind for me are the swimming dinosaur tracks and the fish-eating

Let's first talk about the swimming dinosaur tracks.

LX: The dinosaur tracks in the Cretaceous Sichuan Basin are more important than others. That’s because the Sichuan Basin has produced some famous Jurassic dinosaurs, like Mamenchisaurus, but is lacking for the Cretaceous [body] fossil record. Thus, the local Cretaceous dinosaur tracks may tell us what kinds of dinosaurs lived in the Cretaceous Sichuan. Actually they are still there!

SAS: Do you remember your first thoughts when you encountered the specimen? 

LX: When I encountered the specimen, I felt like [they resembled] the terrible claw marks on the prey. But soon I realized “These are the swimming tracks!” Since I had read many times the papers documenting the dinosaur swimming tracks in Utah, I could immediately recognized it. Now it’s here! Soon after I found the second one, the third one…

SAS: Swimming behavior in dinosaurs is not a commonly preserved behavior. What other hypotheses did you have to rule out before you were comfortable with the swimming dinosaur interpretation? 

LX: Indeed. I’ve studied many track specimens, and the effects of sediments on tracks have far exceeded what I thought. Actually these parallel tracks are possible the slipping traces left on the muddy sediment, which we even found in Xinjiang. Both are similar. Only the slipping traces on the muddy base left by the toes are much wider.

SAS: How does this change our prior understanding of theropod dinosaur behavior?

LX: I think the theropod dinosaur swimming behavior should be more common than we expected. The fossil record [of these specimens] has been increasing.

SAS: How did you become interested in vertebrate traces? Was there a particular specimen or project that spurred your interest? 

LX: First I was not as interested in dinosaur tracks as in dinosaur skeletons. But I’ve found that few Chinese scholars pay attention to this field, so that I could gather a great deal of specimens to study them in just a few years. During the course I’ve been fond of dinosaur tracks. They are amazing. Those better-preserved specimens are always impressive, such as the interesting small tracks of Minisauripus.

SAS: Now, tell me about the fish-eating Microraptor. 

LX: This is an interesting theropod dinosaur with two-paired wings, which represents a link of the ancestors of the modern birds. What I’d like to express is, Microraptor fossils are good-sellers at Chinese black market. I will keep the price as secret. [SAS NOTE: Paleontologists do not commonly discuss the “market value” of dinosaur material. We believe this material to be a priceless part of our natural heritage. However, less scrupulous people disregard a country’s fossil legislation and participate in the illegal fossil trade.] What I would like to tell you is, it is said that there are more than 200 specimens being kept by individuals, among which some have been smuggled out of China. That is miserable. I hope the government will take emergent action to stop this.

SAS: How does this new study change how we see
Microraptor? What can we add to the complex picture of Microraptor? 

LX: This is the first time we’ve found that Microraptor fed on non-arboreal animals. It makes us firmly believe that Microraptor is totally an opportunist. They ate anything they could catch. Dr. Currie also told us, Microraptor ate everything!

SAS: Do the stomach contents of Microraptor give us any clues to the behavior of other small, feathered theropods? 

LX: I’ve carefully studied the stomach contents of Microraptor and Sinocalliopteryx. Recently I have been searching for more stomach contents of feathered dinosaurs. The discovery has indicated that these feathered predators were more active than we had expected. Their menu exceeds the common variety. That is probably the reason why they successfully evolved.

SAS: You work on both dinosaur body fossils and their traces. Do these two research paths ever overlap? 

LX: Yes they partially do, but not too much. The best path is to further understand the bone structure of the feet: that would be favorable for my further research on the tracks.

SAS: You are a talented artist! (Check out this image of Yutyrannus huali by Xing and Liu. Damn!). How often does your research influence your art?

LX: My picture work mostly stays in draft and the last final modification, while the middle link is finished by my assistants. That’s because I have no time to illustrate the details. Since I am engaged in paleontology, I can better grasp the features and gestures of a particular dinosaur. That makes our artistic team different from other artists. A work named “Tyrannosaurus Family”, which was made for National Geographic will soon be published. It is the first work we’ve made for overseas press. I’m proud of it.

SAS: Can you tell us a little about future projects? 

LX: We have many other interesting discoveries as well. That includes the nests left by social insects on some Lufengosaurus skeletons. They may similar to termites. Just image the scene, mass ancient termites foraging, nesting on the dinosaur corpse. Isn`t that exciting?

Hecks yes, exciting! Now that I am developing a small, yet thriving, dermestid beetle colony, I can picture this partially decomposed prosauropod just teeming with the Cretaceous sarcophagous insect fauna. Creepy-cool!

Do owls and bats still frequent the Chonquing track site? What about Minisauripus? Are there other dinosaur sites with which Lida is involved that are destined to become geoparks? These and other questions will be answered in a follow-up interview with Lida Xing! Keep an eye peeled for his artwork to appear in National Geographic!

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