Since the 1920s, paleontologists have been fascinated by a grouping of fossil beds discovered in Liaoning province in northeast China and containing thousands of astoundingly well-preserved animal remains. Now, a new study contends that Jehol Biota--as the area is known--was the early Cretaceous equivalent of the Roman city of Pompeii, destroyed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79. Like the human inhabitants of Pompeii, the animals in this ancient graveyard were killed instantly by the blast of hot gas and volcanic rock, their bodies preserved under layers of ash to be discovered millions of years later.

The Jehol Biota fossil beds, located in Liaoning province in northeast China, contain thousands of fossil deposits ranging from fish to the first-known feathered dinosaurs, and from early mammals to birds and insects. Paleontologists, who have mined the beds for a wealth of valuable information about the early Cretaceous era, have long pondered the mystery of how so many ancient specimens could be so well preserved. This week, a new study published in the journal Nature Communications argues that the fossil beds, which date back some 120 to 130 million years, were created by volcanic eruptions similar to the one that wiped out the Roman city of Pompeii in A.D. 79.

According to the team of researchers behind the new study, the animals preserved in the ancient graveyard lived in a region of conifer forests and lakes, surrounded by volcanoes. Layers of sediment found in the beds indicate there were probably several small but intense eruptions during the early Cretaceous. When these volcanoes erupted, they believe, surges of hot gas and volcanic rock surged across the landscape. These surges, known as pyroclastic flows or pyroclastic density currents (PDCs), can move at speeds of up to 450 mph, while the temperature of the poisonous gas spewing from the volcano can reach more than 1,000 degrees. Such deadly blasts would have killed the animals instantly, encasing their bodies in layers of ash.

Like the humans killed in Pompeii, the animals were frozen in mid-movement, with backbones extended and limbs flexed–typical, researchers say, of victims killed by PDCs. According to lead researcher Baoyu Jiang: “All the studied fossils are directly embedded within pyroclastic flows. And the preserved animals are characterized by entombment poses and showed evidence of charring, similar to those associated with victims at Pompeii.”

Because both freshwater and terrestrial animal fossils have been found in the Jehol Biota beds, the researchers believe the animals were likely swept into an ancient lake. They claim the animals were all found together because the PDCs picked them up and deposited them all in the same location. Professor Mike Benton, a paleontologist from the University of Bristol who is not involved in the study, calls this conclusion “quite a radical, new idea,” and one that poses a direct challenge to the prevailing view that it was ancient rivers that carried the animals into the lakes. While saying that the basis of the new study is sound, he believes it is “unlikely” that the pyroclastic flows moved the animals, pointing out that at Pompeii, people were killed but not transported.