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Experience Where Nature, Science and Culture Meet Blog

The Witte Museum’s Curator of Paleontology and Geology, Dr. Thomas Adams, was invited by Professor Dan Lehrmann of Trinity University to join him on a three-week study- abroad trip to southern China. Twelve students from Trinity University and 14 students from Guizhou University participated in field studies in geology, paleontology, environmental studies, and cultures of Guizhou and Yunnan provinces. In addition to Drs. Lehrmann and Adams, the course is co-taught by Drs. Zhaoxi (Josie) Liu, of Trinity University, and Yu Youyi, of Guizhou University.

Check out this great article in San Antonio Magazine. 

May 31st – June 1st

Our flight left at 1:00 in the morning. We traveled to Beijing International Airport, and after a five-hour layover, flew on to Guiyang in Guizhou province. Total travel time is about 21 hours. Once in Guiyang we headed off to meet the other half of our group, the students and Professor Yu Youyi at Guizhou University. We were given a huge warm welcome and greeting from the Dean of the College of Resource and Environment Engineering. The students made friends quickly and after a short tour of campus we went out for our first meal in China.

June 2nd Friday

Courtesy of Morgan Block

After the long trip to Guizhou, today would be an easy day to recover. We started the day walking through Huaxi Park. This park was established in 1787 and today serves as an area to help filter and clean the city’s water through its natural wetlands. This is one of the many examples of the Chinese people trying to reduce pollution and toxins in their environment.

After lunch, we visited the Qingyan Ancient Town. It was built in 1378, during the Ming Dynasty, and is one of the more famous historical towns in Guizhou. Today it is a very busy tourist destination with many souvenir shops and restaurants.

June 3rd Saturday

We left Guiyang early today to start our trip across southern China. Our first field stop was in Weng’an. Here we examined the Neoproterozoic rocks of the Doushantuo Formation (635-550 million years old). These rocks have become famous for preserving some of the earliest fossils of multicelluler life and potentially the oldest fossil sponge embryos. This makes it a very important locality and is now protected by the government, but it was initially a phosphate mine that produced fertilizer.

Courtesy of Asmara Lehrmann

The next two nights we stayed in the city of Kaili. For dinner we were treated to hot pot, a variety of foods prepared in a simmering pot of stock at your table. Ours included very fresh catfish from the nearby tank, beef, vegetables and tofu.

June 4th Sunday 

We drove to the countryside to look at huge glacial deposits that provide some of the evidence for what is called the Snowball Earth hypothesis. This hypothesis suggests that the Earth’s surface became entirely or almost entirely frozen approximately 650 million years ago. These glacial rocks are almost a thousand feet thick.

Courtesy of Asmara Lehrmann

After lunch we visited the village of Balang to see the Kaili Formation. This required a long hike up the mountainside, the first of many that we would make on this trip. Students were given an opportunity to look for their own fossils just outside the village. Many found beautiful trilobites. This entire area, including the village, is now a Geopark, similar to our national parks, and has a museum dedicated to the fossils and the area.

Courtesy of Dan Lehrmann

This evening we visited a Miao-minority village, a local tourist site, for dinner. The Miao are an ethnic population throughout South China, with over four million Miao people living in Guizhou province. The Miao people entertain guests with a special drink and music ceremony. We also seemed to be the entertainment for many of the other guests around us. Not very many Westerners visit this part of China.

June 5th Monday

After a four-hour drive, we arrive at the next field site near the city of Luodian. It is in this area that Drs. Lehrmann and Yu conducted much of their life’s work describing the evolution of ancient marine seaways and tropical reef systems in the Nanpanjiang Basin.

The afternoon was spent in Dajiang village looking at the Permian-Triassic boundary and discussing the End Permian extinction event. This was the largest extinction event in Earth’s history, with up to 96% of all ocean life and 70% of land animals becoming extinct 252 million years ago.

June 6th Tuesday

Today we climbed to the top of one of the many karst peaks in the mountains surrounding the village of Bangeng. It was a long hike, but everyone made it. Along the trail, we took plenty of time to talk geology and look for fossils.

Most of the meals together are eaten “family style.” Several dishes are placed in the middle of the table. Each person will usually have a bowl of rice. Everyone uses their chopsticks and takes whatever they like. You don’t fill up your bowl and then eat. You take one bite from this dish and then one bite from that dish.

June 7th Wednesday

Left to right: Dr. Dante Fenolio, Dr. Thomas Adams, and Dr. Andy Gluesenkamp, Director of Conservation and Research, SA Zoo

Today, students got a lesson in geologic mapping. We went to the Dajing-Xiajing Rivers. Students were given aerial photos of the region and had to work together in groups to identify and describe the rocks of the area to create a geologic map. While at the spot, we ran into another group doing research in this spot and it turns out they are from the San Antonio Zoo here to study cave fish. After introductions, I realized that Dr. Dante Fenolio, Vice President of Conservation and Research at the SA Zoo, and I have been emailing each other trying to find a time to meet and talk. We never could find a time in San Antonio and after two years, meet for the first time in China! What are the odds?

June 8th Thursday

Yesterday evening we drove to Zhijin. Today we’ll learn about karst and cave geology at Zhijin Cave and Geopark in Minzhai village. The cave extends over 8.5 miles, with a total area of over 2.7 square miles and boasts what is believed to be the largest unsupported roof span of any cave worldwide. More than 120 different crystalline formations are found in the cave’s interior. Tonight we leave for Huangguoshu.

June 9th Friday

Today we were at Huangguoshu Waterfall, one of the most spectacular waterfalls in Asia. There are 18 waterfalls that are clustered in this park, making it a popular tourist destination. But it isn’t a sightseeing tour for us. Students observe river processes, waterfall formation, and karst development.

Wherever we go, we get a lot attention. Many of the locals have never seen Westerners and many ask to have photos taken with us.

June 10th Saturday

Local kids were very curious about the strangers in their village

We traveled to Guanling, where we will spend the next three nights. The students got another opportunity to do some field geology; we went to the village of Hongyan to measure a stratigraphic section. This involves describing the layers of rock, measuring their thickness and drawing these observations on a vertical column. What you end up with is a sequence of geologic events, one on top of the next, with the oldest layers at the bottom and the youngest at the top.

Courtesy of Asmara Lehrmann

The afternoon was given over to driving to Dabang, where we looked out over the Yangtze carbonate platform margin. A platform is a large raised structure of calcium carbonate rock (limestone). These platforms grow in fairly shallow waters from the deposition of calcite from marine organisms whose skeletons make up reef margins and flat-top interiors. A great example of present-day carbonate platform is the Bahama Banks. Today the platform margin had a spectacular view.

We were joined today by reporters from the Guizhou Provincial TV station, who were doing a story about the partnership between us and Guizhou University. Check out the video here!

June 11th Sunday

This afternoon we visited the Gangling Fossil Group National Geopark near Xinpu. This museum preserves some truly spectacular fossils from the Xinpu marine reptile Lagerstätte from the middle Triassic (240 million years ago). Lagerstätte deposits are represented by extraordinary fossils with exceptional preservation—sometimes including soft tissues. These formations may have resulted from carcass burial in an anoxic environment with minimal bacteria and decomposition.

June 12th Monday

Courtesy of Dan Lehrmann

Today we moved to Xingyi, a much larger city compared to the towns and villages we have traveled through. Along the way, we stopped to visit the Keichousaurus Museum in Dingxiao. Keichousaurus is a genus of marine reptile from the Early Triassic (250 million years ago). They are among the most common marine reptile fossils in southern China and are often found as nearly complete, articulated skeletons, making them popular among collectors.

Courtesy of Dan Lehrmann

Tonight was a special treat, Chinese barbecue!

June 13th Tuesday

We spent the morning visiting the Xingyi National Geopark Museum. It is still under construction, with only some exhibits finished. The focus of the Museum is on the Triassic marine reptile faunas that are so beautifully preserved around southwest China. Afterwards we went to a small hydroelectric power plant and talked about China’s growing energy needs.

Courtesy of Dan Lehrmann

After lunch, the students were given the rest of the afternoon off. Many went to the nearby shopping mall. But a few of us had an opportunity to check out a private fossil collection. These were some spectacular marine reptile fossils, including ichthyosaurs that had multiple babies still inside the mother, providing evidence of live birth in these ancient animals.

June 14th Wednesday

Today we focused on the power of water with a visit to Malinghe Gorge. The gorge is approximately 60 miles long and 1,000 feet deep. Numerous waterfalls cascade from the cliffs and various karst caves occur along the valley sides. The walls are lined with lush, subtropical plants and hanging travertine rock formations that protrude from the canyon like giant mushrooms.

The afternoon included a visit to Wanfenglin, the Forest of Ten Thousand Peaks. As its name suggests, it is composed of thousands of craggy karst peaks covered by beautiful forests. Among the peaks forest are creeks, fields, bridges, and villages populated by the Buyi people.

June 15th Thursday

Today we left Guizhou province for Yunnan. Our first stop is the city of Luoping.  Luoping is home to a Middle Triassic fossil Lagerstätte with nearly 20,000 fossils. The perfectly preserved skeletons of shellfish, sea urchins, fish, and marine reptiles provide a glimpse at an ancient ecosystem that emerged after the major extinction that almost wiped all life off the planet.

June 16th Friday

Today we drove to Shilin stone forest, one of the most famous karst terrains in southern China. Covering 180 square miles, the stone forest is a massive landscape of karst formations carved by rain, wind and seismic activity for millions of years. Giant stalagmite-like pillars thrust out of the earth to create huge arrangements of labyrinths, caves, waterfalls, natural bridges and sinkholes.

June 17th Saturday

Courtesy of Dan Lehrmann

Today we arrived in the large city of Kunming, whose population is approximately 8 million; it would be the first full day off for the students. However, Dr. Josie Liu helped organized a special event at Sinhua Bookstore, the largest bookstore in Kunming. She contacted a local radio host who has a public education series. All the professors and a few Trinity and Guizhou students talked to several families about geology and our experience here. Kunming’s most popular newspaper and the Yunnan province TV station also covered this event. Watch the segment here!

June 18th Sunday

We are focusing on environmental issues today. First stop is Dianchi Lake to learn about pollution of the lake over the last few decades and then to the surrounding Green Water shed and wetlands to discuss the remarkable efforts to clean up the water. The lake is a deep green color as result of agricultural and industrial run off in many of the rivers that feed the lake.

June 19th Monday

Our last day in China is spent at the Lufeng Dinosaur Valley Geopark. The park is an interesting combination of amusement park rides, pavilions, walkways, and a large pond with life-size dinosaur statues. At the core of the park, a museum houses over 60 mounted dinosaur skeletons and over 30 individual dinosaur fossils, including 12 rare, complete dinosaur skulls. Over 400 fossils still encased in the hillside are on display in the enclosed excavation site. These dinosaurs are from the Early to Middle Jurassic Period (200-165 million years ago).

June 20th Tuesday

Kneeling left to right: Yu Heqiong, Feng Yong, Joseph Campbell, Eryka Mendoza, Asmara Lehrmann, Sajoy Pottian, Yu Youyi, Josie Liu. 2nd row, left to right: Wu Zhongyin, Wang Yuan, Hannah Konyecsni, Morgan Block, Christina Guo, Marissa Battle, Zhu Yue, Huang Xuedan, Xu Guangfu, Du Zongfei, Ma Zhiheng, Luke Burdiss. Back row, left to right: Wang Dezhi, Dan Lehrmann, Elliot Blake, Zachary Oretsky, Lisa Ma (with Quetzy), Thomas Adams, Zhang Yuan, Chen Wanyi.

This morning we left for the airport at 4:30 The Guizhou students joined us in the hotel lobby, where the students hugged and cried as they said their good-byes. We will be glad to get home after a long return flight. The students have made lasting friendships and leave having seen a part of the world that few Westerners will ever see. The culture, the landscape, and its natural history will have a lasting impact on all of us. I am very proud to have been part of this adventure and can’t wait to do it again.

Check out this great  video by Asmara Lehrmann, a student on the trip!  Did you spot the Witte ambassador, Quetzy? You can pick up your very own plush Quetzy at the Bolner Family Museum Store!