Where the Dinosaurs Are - The World's Most Important Fossil Formations

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Here's Where Most of the World's Dinosaurs Are Found

compsognathus
Wikimedia Commons.

Dinosaurs and prehistoric animals have been discovered all over the world, and on every continent, including Antarctica. But the fact is that some geologic formations are more productive than others, and have yielded troves of well-preserved fossils that have immeasurably aided our understanding of life during the Paleozoic, Mesozoic and Cenozoic Eras. On the following pages, you'll find descriptions of the 12 most important fossil sites, ranging from the Morrison Formation in the U.S. to Mongolia's Flaming Cliffs.

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Morrison Formation (Western U.S.)

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A piece of the Morrison Formation (Wikimedia Commons).

It's safe to say that without the Morrison Formation--which stretches all the way from Arizona to North Dakota, passing through the fossil-rich states of Wyoming and Colorado--we wouldn't know nearly as much about dinosaurs as we do today. These vast sediments were laid down toward the end of the Jurassic period, about 150 million years ago, and have yielded the plentiful remains of (to name just a few famous dinosaurs) Stegosaurus, Allosaurus and Brachiosaurus. The Morrison Formation was the main battleground of the late 19th-century Bone Wars--the unsavory, underhanded, and occasionally violent rivalry between the famous paleontologists Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel C. Marsh.

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Dinosaur Provincial Park (Western Canada)

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Dinosaur Provincial Park (Wikimedia Commons).

One of the most inaccessible fossil locations in North America--and also one of the most productive--Dinosaur Provincial Park is located in Canada's Alberta Province, about a two-hour drive from Calgary. The sediments here, which were laid down during the late Cretaceous period (about 80 to 70 million years ago), have yielded the remains of literally hundreds of different species, including a particularly healthy assortment of ceratopsians (horned, frilled dinosaurs) and hadrosaurs (duck-billed dinosaurs). A complete list is out of the question, but among Dinosaur Provincial Park's notable genera are Styracosaurus, Parasaurolophus, Euoplocephalus, Chirostenotes, and the much easier-to-pronounce Troodon.

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Dashanpu Formation (South-Central China)

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A Mamenchisaurus on display near the Dashanpu Formation (Wikimedia Commons).

Like the Morrison Formation in the U.S., the Dashanpu Formation in south-central China has provided a unique peek into prehistoric life during the middle to late Jurassic period. This site was discovered by accident--a gas company crew unearthed a theropod, later named Gasosaurus, in the course of construction work--and its excavation was spearheaded by the famous Chinese paleontologist Dong Zhiming. Among the dinosaurs discovered at Dashanpu are Mamenchisaurus, Gigantspinosaurus and Yangchuanosaurus; the site has also yielded the fossils of numerous turtles, pterosaurs, and prehistoric crocodiles.

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Dinosaur Cove (Southern Australia)

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Wikimedia Commons.

During the middle Cretaceous period, about 105 million years ago, the southern tip of Australia was only a stone's throw from the eastern border of Antarctica. The importance of Dinosaur Cove--explored in the 1970's and 1980's by the husband-and-wife team of Tim Rich and Patricia Vickers-Rich--is that it has yielded fossils of deep-south-dwelling dinosaurs well-adapted to conditions of extreme cold and darkness. The Riches named two of their most important discoveries after their children: the big-eyed ornithopod Leaellynasaura, which probably foraged at night, and the comparably small "bird mimic" theropod Timimus.

 

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Ghost Ranch (New Mexico)

ghost ranch
Ghost Ranch (Wikimedia Commons).

Some fossil sites are important because they preserve the remains of diverse prehistoric ecosystems--and others are important because they drill down deep, so to speak, on a particular type of dinosaur. New Mexico's Ghost Ranch quarry is in the latter category: this is where paleontologist Edwin Colbert studied the remains of literally thousands of Coelophysis, a late Triassic dinosaur that represented an important link between the earliest theropods (which evolved in South America) and the more advanced meat-eaters of the ensuing Jurassic period. More recently, researchers discovered another "basal" theropod in Ghost Ranch, the distinctive-looking Daemonosaurus.

 

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Solnhofen (Germany)

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A well-preserved Archaeopteryx from the Solnhofen limestone beds (Wikimedia Commons).

The Solnhofen limestone beds in Germany are important for historical, as well as for paleontological, reasons. Solnhofen is where the first specimens of Archaeopteryx were discovered, in the early 1860's, only a couple of years after Charles Darwin had published his magnum opus On the Origin of Species; the existence of such an indisputable "transitional form" did much to advance the then-controversial theory of evolution. What many people don't know is that the 150-million-year-old Solnhofen sediments have yielded the exquisitely preserved remains of an entire ecosystem, including late Jurassic fish, lizards, pterosaurs, and one very important dinosaur, the tiny, meat-eating Compsognathus.

 

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Liaoning (Northeastern China)

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Confuciusornis, an ancient bird from the Liaoning fossil beds (Wikimedia Commons).

Just as Solnhofen (see previous slide) is most famous for Archaeopteryx, the extensive fossil formations near the northeastern China city of Liaoning are notorious for their profusion of feathered dinosaurs. This is where the first indisputably feathered dinosaur, Sinosauropteryx, was discovered in the early 1990's, and the early Cretaceous Liaoning beds (dating from about 130 to 120 million years ago) have since delivered an embarrassment of feathered riches, including the ancestral tyrannosaur Dilong and the ancestral bird Confuciusornis. And that's not all; Liaoning was also the home of one of the earliest placental mammals (Eomaia) and the only mammal that we know for a fact preyed on dinosaurs (Repenomamus).

 

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Hell Creek Formation (Western U.S.)

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The Hell Creek Formation (Wikimedia Commons).

What was life on earth like at the cusp of the K/T Extinction, 65 million years ago? The answer to that question can be found in the Hell Creek Formation of Montana, Wyoming, and North and South Dakota, which captures an entire late Cretaceous ecosystem: not only dinosaurs (Ankylosaurus, Triceratops, Tyrannosaurus Rex), but fish, amphibians, turtles, crocodiles, and early mammals like Alphadon and Didelphodon. Because a portion of the Hell Creek Formation extends into the early Paleocene epoch, scientists examining the  boundary layer have discovered traces of iridium, the tell-tale element that points to a meteor impact as the cause of the dinosaurs' demise.

 

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Karoo Basin (South Africa)

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Lystrosaurus, numerous fossils of which have been discovered in the Karoo Basin (Wikimedia Commons).

"Karoo Basin" is the generic name assigned to a series of fossil formations in southern Africa that span 120 million years in geologic time, from the early Carboniferous to the early Jurassic periods. For the purposes of this list, though, we'll concentrate on the "Beaufort Assemblage," which capture a huge chunk of the later Permian period and has yielded a rich array of therapsids: the "mammal-like reptiles" that preceded the dinosaurs and eventually evolved into the first mammals. Thanks in part to paleontologist Robert Broom, this portion of the Karoo Basin has been classified into eight "assemblage zones" named after the important therapsids discovered there--including Lystrosaurus, Cynognathus, and Dicynodon.

 

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Flaming Cliffs (Mongolia)

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Flaming Cliffs (Wikimedia Commons).

Possibly the most remote fossil site on the face of the earth--with the possible exception of parts of Antarctica--Flaming Cliffs is the visually striking region of Mongolia to which Roy Chapman Andrews traveled in the 1920's on an expedition funded by the American Museum of Natural History. In these late Cretaceous sediments, dating to about 85 million years ago, Chapman and his team discovered three iconic dinosaurs, Velociraptor, Protoceratops, and Oviraptor, all of which coexisted in this desert ecosystem. Perhaps more importantly, it was in Flaming Cliffs that paleontologists adduced the first direct evidence that dinosaurs laid eggs, rather than giving live birth: the name Oviraptor, after all, is Greek for"egg thief."

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Las Hoyas (Spain)

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Iberomesornis, a famous bird of the Las Hoyas formation (Wikimedia Commons).

Las Hoyas, in Spain, may not necessarily be any more important or productive than any other fossil site located in any other specific country--but it's indicative of what a good "national" fossil formation should look like! The sediments at Las Hoyas date to the early Cretaceous period (130 to 125 million years ago), and include some very distinctive dinosaurs, including the toothy "bird mimic" Pelecanimimus and the oddly humped theropod Concavenator, as well as various fish, arthropods, and ancestral crocodiles. Las Hoyas, however, is best known for its "enantiornithines," an important family of Cretaceous birds typified by the tiny, sparrow-like Iberomesornis.

 

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Valle de la Luna (Argentina)

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Valle de la Luna (Wikimedia Commons).

New Mexico's Ghost Ranch (see slide #6) has yielded the fossils of primitive, meat-eating dinosaurs only recently descended from their South American progenitors. But Valle de la Luna ("Valley of the Moon"), in Argentina, is where the story really began: these 230-million-year-old middle Triassic sediments harbor the remains of the very first dinosaurs, including not only Herrerasaurus and the recently discovered Eoraptor, but also Lagosuchus, a contemporaneous archosaur so advanced along the "dinosaur" line that it would take a trained paleontologist to tease out the difference.