Like Pompeii, Chinese Dinosaurs Frozen In Death Positions At Famous Fossil Site

By Ben Wolford on February 4, 2014 5:30 PM EST

Animal Pompeii
A volcano may be responsible for a trove of diverse fossils in northern China. (Photo: Screenshot/Nature/Boayu Jiang)

A fossil site in northeastern China has yielded diverse, plentiful, and well-preserved specimens from a ecosystem known as Jehol Biota, which existed more than 120 million years ago. But here's the weird part: birds, lizards, dinosaurs, and mammals have all come out of the same site, despite the diversity of their normal habitats. It has never made any sense.

New research shows that a volcanic eruption may be the answer. In the same way that the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in the year 79 entombed Pompeii, Italy in a cloud of volcanic ash, an ancient Chinese eruption may be reason so many animals ended up in one peculiar spot. It would also explain why some of the animals were practically mummified, with soft tissue, including feathers on birds, still intact, National Geographic reported.

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The study, published Tuesday in the journal Nature Communications, says that "after examining and analysing sediments and residual fossils from several key" locations, a pyroclastic cloud is likely the cause of the animals' deaths. It would mean that, like the citizens of Pompeii, these animals had been frozen in their death positions for more than 120 million years. If you've ever seen Dante's Peak, you'll remember this scene with the pyroclastic flow. That's what the researchers believe engulfed the animals of the Jehol Biota.

"Fresh, hot, dry, acid volcanic ash promoted burning, charring or mummifying of soft tissues, which, as a result, became more resistant to decay and better preserved," the authors of the study wrote, according to Smithsonian magazine. "The burnt, charred or mummified organic tissues probably served as templates for the extremely fine-grained ashes that coated them, forming the two-dimensional body outlines." Additionally, the researchers contend that the pyroclastic flow carried the animals' bodies into the lake. They said the death positions of the animals are consistent with volcanic death, and the sediments around the fossils are similar to the ash found around the 1883 Krakatoa explosion, National Geographic reports.

At least one scientist not involved with the study has said the premise is mostly solid and quite interesting, but may have holes. Mike Benton of the University of Bristol told NBC News that "that's quite a radical, new idea." But he added that they may be wrong about the volcanic debris moving the carcasses into the lake. He points to the most famous pyroclastic cloud of all, Pompeii, for evidence. "At Pompeii, people were overwhelmed and killed, but not transported," he wrote to the network.

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