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TENGCHONG, CHINA—On an overcast spring morning, a mosaic of life in the heyday of the dinosaurs takes shape piece by piece in this border city. It sprawls across hundreds of tables, on sheets spread by storefronts, and under glass counters in shops. Some vendors hawk jade or snacks, but most everyone is here for the amber: raw amber coated in gray volcanic ash; polished amber carved into smiling Buddhas; egg-size dollops of amber the color of honey, molasses, or garnet. Some browsers seek treasure for their own collections, whereas others act as virtual dealers, holding amber pieces in front of their smartphones and snapping images for distant buyers.
For scientists, this is more than a place to buy pendants or bracelets. One morning in March, paleontologist Xing Lida from the China University of Geosciences in Beijing stops at a table and examines a cockroach in a golf ball–size glob of amber, paused in time from the middle of the Cretaceous period. Its intact limbs curve off a body that looks smaller and narrower than that of today's household pests.
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The dealer wants about $900. "It's an OK price," Xing says. But he moves on, hunting rarer, more scientifically valuable game.
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Within a few minutes, a stranger notices Xing, shoots video of him, and posts it to social media. With 2.6 million followers on Weibo, a Chinese hybrid of Facebook and Twitter, the baby-faced, hypercharismatic Xing is a celebrity for his studies of dinosaur tracks and other adventures. Last year, he published 25 scientific papers and a dinosaur-related fantasy novel with a foreword by Liu Cixin, the country's superstar science fiction author. But Xing, like a few other Chinese paleontologists, is also lionized for the extraordinary discoveries he has made...
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