A series of fossil discoveries in the 1990s changed our understanding of the lives of early birds and mammals, as well as the dinosaurs they shared an ecosystem with. All those discoveries had one thing in common: they came from a small region in northern China that preserved what is now called the Jehol Biota.
Until now, however, no one knew why so many well-preserved fossils were found in that region. In a new study published in Nature Communications, researchers discovered that this remarkable preservation might have been the result of a Pompeii-like event, where hot ash from a volcanic eruption entombed these animals.
According to Leicester University's Sarah Gabbott (who wasn’t involved in the study), “Unravelling the environments in which fossilization took place, as the authors do in this paper, is very important. It places the fossils within the context of their habitat and it allows us to determine what filters and biases may have played a part.” These biases may affect which organisms get preserved.
The fossils of the Jehol Biota are from the Early Cretaceous period, about 130 million years ago, and they comprise a wide variety of animals and plants. So far, about 60 species of plants, 1,000 species of invertebrates, and 140 species of vertebrates have been found in the Jehol Biota.
One of the most remarkable discoveries to arise from these fossils came in 2010, when Michael Benton of the University of Bristol found colour-banding preserved in dinosaur fossils. These stripes of light and dark are similar to stripes in modern birds, and they provided further evidence that dinosaurs evolved into birds. Benton also found that these fossils had intact mealnosomes—organelles that make pigments. This discovery allowed paleontologists to tell the colors of dinosaurs' feathers for the first time.
The area that supported the Jehol Biota is suspected to have been a wetland with many lakes. Most fossils are found in lakebeds, suggesting that either the fossils were washed into these lakes by floods or that the animals were in the lakes before fossilization took place.
Baoyu believes that if fossils don't separate bone joints, it means the animals must have been in the lake before dying. But that is not a convincing argument, Gabbott said. "A freshly dead carcass, buoyed by decay gases which collect in the stomach, can be transported for tens if not hundreds of kilometers without such disarticulation."
No other fossil location, let alone that which produced so many well-preserved samples, has ever been suggested to have undergone a similar event. However, a comparison can be made to what happened in Pompeii in 79 AD when Mount Vesuvius erupted. The ensuing destruction led to the preservation of the city’s architecture and objects but not of people or animals. The human and animal remains we see from Pompeii are plaster casts of the empty spaces their decomposed bodies left in the ash.