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Fossil restorer puts back pieces of the past

Niu Dongyi adding to record of world's natural history

By Liu Kun in Wuhan and Zou Shuo | China Daily | Updated: 2024-05-27 09:29
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Niu Dongyi repairs a reptile fossil at the Wuhan Center of the China Geological Survey in Wuhan, Hubei province. CHINA DAILY

Niu Dongyi has been a fossil restorer for 12 years, and in that time he's pieced back together more than 80 fossils of marine reptiles from the Triassic Period — a time about 200 million years ago.

In 2012, at the suggestion of a friend, Niu visited the Wuhan Center of the China Geological Survey in Wuhan, Hubei province.

The center was in great need of fossil restorers, and despite Niu not having professional knowledge of ancient creatures at that time, the experts at the center found him suitable for the job due to his steady eye and his interest in seal-cutting.

"I didn't have much confidence in doing the job at first, so I began to practice repairing with general fossils and reading lots of books," he said.

In order for him to become a qualified restorer, professors at the center recommended he study fossil restoration at the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing.

Niu said he memorized every detail he learned at the institute and asked lots of questions. To become a fossil restorer, one of the most important qualities is responsibility, cherishing each and every one of the fossils. Being patient and careful is also very important, he said.

For example, when repairing the fossil of an Atopodentatus unicus, a marine reptile from the Middle Triassic in Asia, he needs to be extra careful in holding the pneumatic engraving pen, so as not to break the skeleton. "Some of the skull is extremely thin, with the thinnest part being only 1 millimeter, and I need to adjust my breathing and hold my breath so as to not harm it," he said.

One of the most memorable experiences for Niu was repairing a crocodile fossil in 2022. It had to be repaired at the place of discovery, instead of in the laboratory.

"I thought it wouldn't be so difficult repairing the fossil while lying on the ground, but when I actually did so, my neck and shoulder became sore after several minutes," he said.

As it was summer, and there was no air conditioning outdoors, he had to repair the fossil early in the morning and late in the afternoon.

Fossils can help people understand the structure, type and behavior of ancient creatures, and record the geology and atmosphere of ancient times and the evolution of planet Earth, he said.

They can help us discover the biological evolution and the formation of biodiversity, while also having aesthetic value for collection and cultural preservation, he added.

Niu said China is a country with rich resources in fossils of ancient creatures, especially those of dinosaurs, yet there are still not enough professional fossil restorers. Due to a lack of suitable people, some museums can only exhibit fossils yet to be restored or that have not been restored well, and many museums want to showcase more exquisite fossils, he said.

The government needs to put more effort into popularizing ancient creature preservation and people's understanding of fossils. Meanwhile, primary and secondary schools should also organize more field studies for students in fossil museums, he said.

There should be more study tours, so the students can better understand the formation and evolution of fossils and maybe even want to work in the sector in the future, he added.

Cheng Long, a professor at the Wuhan geological survey center, said there is a great demand for fossil restorers as paleontology is not a popular academic sector in the country and even in the world. However, as the country has a large number of fossils, if there are more fossil restorers, studies in the sector will be able to progress greatly, he said.

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