National / Science & Health

Dinosaur fossil teases in Hokkaido

by Miyuki Murakawa

Kyodo

A 42-year-old professor in Hokkaido is on the verge of unearthing what could be the best-preserved and most complete fossils of a dinosaur ever found in Japan.

In September, a team led by Yoshitsugu Kobayashi, associate professor at the Hokkaido University Museum, conducted a second round of excavations at a site in Mukawa, near the city of Tomakomai, that was part of the seabed around 72 million years ago in the late Cretaceous period of the Mesozoic era.

The fossils are believed to be of a hadrosaur, or duck-billed dinosaur. It was likely around 8 meters long and weighed 7 tons, according to Kobayashi.

“It is highly likely that we can dig out fossils of the whole body in the best condition ever found in Japan,” he said in an interview in September.

In October, the team announced that part of a bone thought to be from the dinosaur’s right upper jaw had been found. It was in one of 10 excavated rocks containing a number of fossilized bones.

“We’ll closely check it further so that we can get lots of data leading to clarification of dinosaurs’ evolution and biology,” Kobayashi said at a press conference.

Kobayashi grew up in Fukui on the coast of the Sea of Japan, where he enjoyed collecting fossils of ammonites, an extinct type of mollusk, almost every day.

Since few dinosaur fossils had been discovered in Japan at the time, Kobayashi never dreamed that the day would come when he would be able to excavate some with his own hands.

Aspiring to be a dinosaur expert, he entered Yokohama National University in Kanagawa but left before the end of his freshman year and moved to the United States to pursue his dream.

“Although I spoke little English, I had much greater expectations for doing research in the United States,” he said.

At Southern Methodist University in Texas, Kobayashi obtained a doctorate in research on fossilized dinosaur bones — the first Japanese to do so. In 2000, he returned to Japan to help prepare for the opening of the Fukui Prefectural Dinosaur Museum.

Five years later, however, he transferred to Hokkaido University. While Fukui had become by that time one of the best sites in the country for dinosaur fossil discoveries, he saw great potential in Hokkaido, where layers from the Cretaceous period are exposed on the surface at many locations.

Kobayashi travels to various excavation sites around the world such as Alaska and Mongolia, climbing cliffs and going deep into bear-infested mountains.

“I’m quite a ‘hard’ explorer,” he said. “I’m a bit perverse so I like digging in areas where no one would ever search.”

Among his latest achievements are the fossils of a 30-meter-long sauropod in Mongolia last year.

Kobayashi said the ecology of dinosaurs remains largely unknown, but that trying to solve the mystery with limited pieces of information intrigues him.

“I wish I could go back to the dinosaur era in a time machine to confirm whether I have the right theory,” Kobayashi said.