Earth Sciences in Mongolia

Earth Sciences doctoral students John Graf and Thomas Adams, who provided the reports for this blog, along with Professor Louis L. Jacobs, are traveling to Mongolia as a part of a multi-international dinosaur expedition hosted by the city of Hwaseong in the Republic of Korea. The purpose of the project is to discover, collect and study dinosaur fossils from the Gobi desert in Mongolia, which is one of the most important dinosaur localities in the world.
In addition to SMU researchers, the multinational team includes researchers from Korea Institute of Geoscience and Mineral Resources (KIGAM) and Paleontological Center, Mongolian Academy of Sciences and the University of Alberta, Canada. The project will be augmented each year by additional researchers from countries including the United States, Canada, Japan and China.

Sightseeing in the capital

Sept%206.jpg We have two days in Ulaan Bataar to do some shopping and sightseeing. Ulaan Bataar is the capital city with a population of over a million people.

There is so much to do and so little time before we leave for home. There are museums, shops, historical sites and opera houses that put on performances of traditional songs, musicians, contortionists and Mongolian throat singing. It has been a wonderful experience.

We will fly out on the morning of September 8 for Beijing, China, and from there to San Francisco, then Dallas. Including the time between flights, we will be traveling for 24 hours.

It will be good to get back home to see family and friends, but I cannot wait to return to Mongolia.

(In photo: Some of the performers at the Mongolian National Song and Dance Ensemble.)

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On the road

Sept%205.jpg We made it north of Baruunbayan before breaking for camp last night. This morning we will continue our trek without the big trucks, which run slower and will take their time getting back to the city.

We stopped along the way at a ger to have lunch. A ger is a traditional Mongolian dwelling from the times before Genghis-khaan and is more effective in rough Mongolian weather. Gers are easy to put up. A latticework forms the wall, and supports the long roof poles, which come together at the central ring. Layers of felt are draped over the frame, and covered with white cotton. Several ropes hold everything together. In winter more layers of felt are added for warmth, while in summer the bottom of the covers may be turned up for extra ventilation. A simple stove heats the ger, fueled by firewood or animal dung. The interiors are brightly colored and filled with simple furnishings.

We arrived in Ulaan Bataar by late evening and checked into the Bayan Gol Hotel.

(In photo: John Graf and Louis Jacobs enjoying the comforts inside a ger.)

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Desert caravan

Sept%204.jpg We finished loading the trucks and were on our way by 9 AM. The plan is to make it as far as Baruunbayan Ulaan before dark. The vehicles will stay together as a caravan, in case a vehicle breaks down (like the trip from Ulaan Bataar to Bugin Tsav).

It is sad to be leaving the Gobi; I have had a fantastic experience and there is so much more to learn and do. However, like everyone else, I am anticipating a shower and bed when we do arrive in Ulaan Bataar.

(In photo: Just some of the many domestic Bactrian camels that roam the countryside.)

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Time to leave

Sept%203.jpg Today is our last full day in the Gobi. Tomorrow we leave for Ulaan Bataar. The day is spent cataloging fossils and plaster jacketing the last few specimens. Later we will start the breakdown of camp and loading the big trucks.

The wind was strong enough to snap 3 of my guidelines and break a pole on my tent. This was unfortunate, since I would be taking the tent down in just 12 hours. Several others are having problems with sand in the zippers of their tents.

Dave Eberth made the comment: “Between gear failure and running out of toilet paper, burlap and coffee, the Gobi is telling us it’s time to leave.”

(In photo, from left: Ganzorig, Darjaa, Turuu (in the truck) and Monkbold loading plaster jackets into one of the big trucks.)

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Celebrating Mongolian style

Sept%202.jpg We finished excavating and jacketing the Barsboldia bones. The large jacket is 1-1/2 meters long, 1 meter wide and 1/2 meters thick and probably weighs around 1,000 lbs. We needed additional help to flip the block over in order to plaster jacket the other side. All of the other quarries are also closed for the season.

A party was planned for this evening to celebrate the end of a successful expedition, with many fossils, partial skeletons and footprints. We had Mongolian barbeque and a large bonfire. A few of us (including John and myself) were convinced to take part in a favorite Mongolian pastime, wrestling. It goes without saying that our Mongolian friends remain undefeated.

(In photo: Long-eared hedgehog that decided to visit us in the mess tent.)

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On film, and out of burlap

Sept%201.jpg We have found more tail vertebrae continuing into the hill, expanding the size of the jacket. We will try to remove some of the isolated bones in smaller blocks before taking out the larger block with most of the exposed tail vertebrae. The BBC film crew stopped by the quarry to interview Louis and film our excavation.

On top of the short time left to finish the excavation, we have run out of burlap. Burlap strips are dipped in plaster and applied to the fossil blocks to protect the bones, just like a plaster cast on a broken arm. The entire camp has donated t-shirts, towels, pants and socks to be used as substitutes for burlap. The hope is that they will be just as strong in making plaster jackets.

(In photo: John Graf and Louis Jacobs plaster jacketing the large block containing part of the Barsboldia tail.)

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The final push begins

Aug%2031.jpg We have four days left until we return to Ulaan Bataar, and the push is on to finish all the ongoing excavations and close the quarries.

John, Louis and I will spend the rest of our time excavating and plaster jacketing the Barsboldia bones.

The anterior portion of the tail has been exposed, as well as the tip of the tail next to it. It looks like the whole tail is curved around and buried in the hillside. Using a jackhammer, we will take the hill back about a meter to expose more of the fossils and make room for us to work. With so little time left, we will plaster jacket and collect just the material exposed.

Barsboldia is a poorly known lambeosaurine hadrosaur (a duck-billed dinosaur). It is named after Ligden’s father, paleontologist Dr. Richen Barsbold. It was a large quadrupedal plant-eater with very tall neural spines on its vertebrae. Until now, it had only been known from a single specimen.

(In photo: Ganzorig (with shovel) and Thomas removing part of the hillside to expose more of the Barsboldia bones.)

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Fossil turtles everywhere

Aug%2030.jpg John, Louis, Dave and Nam-Soo spent the majority of the day working a fossil turtle locality, located near base camp. This was a site that Louis had discovered last year while working in the same region. Hundreds of turtles are preserved in layers of sandstone that was deposited by a river channel system. Like the therizino and ornithomimid quarries, this site had also been poached by pirates.

Turtle material seems to be one of the most common fossils in Bugin Tsav. No matter where I go, I find turtle shell. This is very telling as to what the environment must have been like 70 million years ago – a green river valley with enough water to support a large population of turtles, fish and dinosaurs. The mystery is that we find very few fossils of crocodiles.

(In photo: Fragments of shell from three different types of turtle.)

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Prospecting sites

Aug%2029.jpg Today, John joined Dave at the Tarbosaur quarry to measure a section and collect more carbonate samples. Louis, Derek and I went off to prospect for sites with small fossils of turtle, fish, mammals and other critters.

While Louis and Derek scoured the hillside, I came across a threopod track preserved on the underside of a sandstone layer.

The three of us traveled to a locality with bone exposed on the surface that John and Derek had discovered their first week at Bugin Tsav. They turn out to be just isolated bones. While searching the area, I collected a small ornithopod track and what turns out to be most of the right and left forelimbs and some vertebrae of a Gallimimus.

(In photo: The partially complete forelimbs of a Gallimimus with vertebrae fragments in the middle.)

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Foot bones and prints in one

Aug%2028.jpg We have finished collecting data at the ornithomimid quarry/track site. We have plaster jacketed four blocks with 11 footprints.

In one block are the preserved fossil foot bones of a Gallimimus (another dinosaur made famous by the Jurassic Park movie). This is very unusual to have both bones and footprints in the same rock layers.

Phil, Eva, Dave and Derek returned from a trip to Nemegt, where they met up with a BBC/Discovery Channel film crew. The film crew is making a documentary on gregarious theropod dinosaurs and came to Mongolia to interview and film Phil. The film crew will be with us until September 1, filming the rest of us excavating fossils.

(In photo, from left: John Graf, Yoshi Kobayashi and Louis Jacobs excavating a track block. Two additional plastered track blocks in the foreground.)

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