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A life spent working with dinosaurs

By Tan Yingzi in Chongqing | China Daily | Updated: 2016-11-04 08:14

After four decades, retiring fossil expert concerned over lack of successors

Chongqing's Museum of Natural History boasts one of the largest collections of dinosaur fossils in the country and since 1977, Zhu Songlin and his team have worked hard to preserve nearly 200 dinosaur skeletons.

Zhu, 59, started work at the museum after finishing high school. He became one of China's first dinosaur fossil repair technicians almost by accident, after a large cache of prehistoric remains were discovered in Southwest China in the 1970s.

Along with the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the museum in Chongqing was among the first institutions to study the fossils.

"Actually at that time, people knew very little about dinosaurs and the subject was not as popular as it is now," Zhu said. "Only two or three people at our museum did the dinosaur work back then."

His team went to the archaeological sites near Chongqing and excavated as many fossils as they could, before studying and repairing them. Some of the specimens were then put on public display.

"It is a job that requires extensive knowledge, superb craftsmanship and hard work," Zhu said.

"As for the presentation of the fossils, you need to have good artistic taste."

As the son of a museum director, Zhu said he was more interested in large mammals, such as tigers and bears, when he was a child.

"But I grew up in a family with good knowledge of the arts, so I regard fossil repair as a kind of artwork and I always feel a sense of achievement when completing a set of fossils," he said.

Though he never went to college, Zhu has studied a wide range of topics, including taphonomy, biology, paleoanthropology, anatomy and prehistoric archaeology, all in his spare time.

He also attended English classes at Chongqing's Sichuan University of Foreign Studies for three years, to better understand foreign literature on dinosaurs. "In my time, we all studied Russian in middle school, so I had to start learning English from ABC," he said.

Much of the fossil repair work Zhu undertakes is difficult and labor intensive. His workshop at the museum is always full of rock dust and the smell of chemicals. Sometimes, he spends more than 10 hours a day at work in the room.

"It takes nearly threes years to repair a full set of large dinosaur fossils," he said.

"A dinosaur has 300 bones at most, the smallest being only 1 millimeter long. You cannot make any mistakes."

The expert knowledge that Zhu has accumulated over the years has earned him an international reputation, and he has been invited to a number of countries to help museums organize their dinosaur exhibitions.

This year, he will retire from his role at the Museum of Natural History and his biggest concern is the lack of young technicians to replace him.

He said that most young college graduates nowadays are unwilling to do labor-intensive fieldwork and would rather just concentrate on research in the lab.

"Every piece of fossil is a gift from nature. I hope there are some young people who really love fossils and dinosaurs and can carry on my work," he said.

 A life spent working with dinosaurs

Zhu Songlin (right) discusses fossil repair with one of his colleagues at Chongqing's Museum of Natural History.Photos Provided To China Daily

 A life spent working with dinosaurs

Zhu cleans a piece of dinosaur fossil in his lab in the museum.Photos Provided To China Daily

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