Recreating the Forest

Part of the Dinosaurs: Ancient Fossils, New Discoveries exhibition.

Ginkgo Leaf.
© Steven J. Baskauf, Vanderbilt University


Plant fossils usually come in bits and pieces: a stem, for example, or a leaf or seed. But because each plant typically has many leaves, branches and the like, these fossils can be fairly common. In the ancient Liaoning forest, pieces of plants fell into the lake, sank to the bottom, were buried and eventually became fossils. In recent years researchers have found enough fossil plants to re-create the ancient environment with great confidence.

Most of the plants of the Liaoning forest are extinct, but have close relatives alive today. The dominant trees were conifers, similar to today's pine and fir trees. Ginkgo trees and ferns were also common. In general, the plants were suited to a semiarid environment, suggesting that the climate in this part of eastern Asia 130 million years ago was warm but dry.

The fossil of tiny birdlike dinosaur Mei long was found in a sleeping position.
© AMNH/Mick Ellison


Ginkgo Trees

The fan-shaped leaves of ancient ginkgo trees are remarkably similar to modern ginkgo leaves.

Fossils come to life

All of the models are highly accurate, full-size re-creations based on plant and animal fossils from Liaoning, China. But details like the colors and sounds of the forest are left to the imagination of the scientists and artists who created this diorama. Modern landscapes, plants and animals also provide much guidance.

Mei long
Craig Chesek/AMNH


Sound asleep

This feathered dinosaur died in its sleep--either buried by volcanic ash or killed by poisonous gas from an eruption. The animal, a dinosaur called Mei long, apparently slept much as birds do, with its feet tucked under its body and its head underneath one wing.