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.

Birthday festivities

Aug%2027.jpg Today is Louis’ birthday, and we had a big celebration tonight. A large meal of grilled meats and dumplings was served, and the cooks even made a cake. There were many expressions of good wishes, and all toasted Louis.

(In photo, from left: Thomas Adams, Young-Nam Lee and Louis Jacobs with Louis’ birthday cake.)

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Tracking dinosaur footprints

Aug%2025.jpg The next few days will be spent working at the ornithomimid quarry/track site measuring, mapping and photographing the dinosaur footprints. The site has been expanded to about 30 square meters with 70 tracks exposed. There are 13 trackways and 13 isolates tracks, representing at least four different types of dinosaur. After we collect all the data we will choose the best representatives of each track type and remove blocks that will be put on display in Korea.

Yoshi Kobayashi, who has spent several years doing paleontology in Mongolia, had a conversation with one of the cooks about who the new people are in camp. Turns out that my name has been causing some confusion with our Mongolian friends. Tom translates to “big” in Mongolian, and Thomas, which sounds like tom yas, translates to “big fossil or bone.” So when Yoshi told Otgoo my name was Tom, she responded “Yes, I know he’s big, but what is his name?”

(In photo: John Graf at the ornithomimid quarry/track site.)

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Hadrosaur find

Aug%2024.jpg The entire team decided to take a break from working in the quarries and travel south to Tsagan Khusu, to prospect for fossils. Louis, John and I took advantage of the opportunity to collect more carbonate samples for our isotope study.

After lunch, we walked a circle from where the vehicles were parked looking for fossil localities. We found several areas with bone fragments on the surface. Shortly before we needed to meet up with the rest of the team members, we came across a poached fossil site of hadrosaur material.

(In photo: John Graf and Thomas Adams at Tsagan Khusu overlooking the Gobi Desert.)

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Dinner in the Gobi

Aug%2022.jpg This morning was spent at the ornithomimid quarry, where the day before Yoshi uncovered more footprints. Over the next few days, we will move more of the overburden (overlying rock) to expand the site.

This afternoon John and Nam-Soo measured a section (measured and described the rock layers) at the therizinosaur quarry and collected more carbonate samples, while Louis and I helped the crew plaster jacket the larger blocks in the quarry.

Each night, we all gather at 8 for dinner. Our cooks, Otgoo and Baaska, serve a terrific meal that varies from rice or noodles with meat, dumplings, soups, fried or steamed bread and assorted side dishes. Meat (beef, lamb, or goat) is served in large quantities, and we always leave the table full. Every meal, except soup, is eaten with chopsticks (including spaghetti). Needless to say, my skill with chopsticks is improving. Our Korean colleagues have supplemented each meal with kimchi, seaweed and canned beef and fish.

(In photo, clockwise from left: Dinner in the mess tent. Dave Eberth, Nam-Soo Kim, John Graf, Eva Koppelhus, Phil Currie, Ligden Barsbold, Yuong-Nam Lee and Louis Jacobs.)

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Desert winds

Aug%2021.jpgToday John and I met up with Louis and Ligden to locate and collect additional carbonate samples from sites that Louis had found when the expedition was here in 2006. We will return to Bugin Tsav tonight, but not before stopping at Naran Bulak, an artesian spring, for water.

The weather has been good so far. The temperature is cool in the early part of the day and rises to the mid to upper 90s by the afternoon. Around 6, the temps fall back down to 70 to 60 degrees. There have only been a few days with strong wind. Usually in the afternoon, when temps rise, so does the wind.

No matter how hard you try, the wind blows sand and dust into everything, including your clothes, tent and sleeping bag.

(In photo: Thomas’ tent at sunrise with sandstone bluffs in the background.)

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Seeking paleoclimate clues

Aug%2020.jpg Today John and I will join Phil, Eva, Dave and Derek on an overnight trip to Altan Ula, southeast of Bugin Tsav. This was the site of many important fossil discoveries made by the Polish-Mongolian expedition between 1965, 1971 and 1972.

While Phil, Eva and Derek look for historic quarries and more fossil localities, John and I will be collecting carbonate and dinosaur eggshell samples to be used for stable isotope geochemistry. The goal is to look for patterns in the carbon and oxygen isotope ratios in the samples that will provide clues as to the paleoclimate of the area.

The rocks and fossils at Bugin Tsav, Altan Ula and other localities in the western Gobi occur within the Nemegt Formation, approximately 70 million years old. The rocks were deposited by meandering rivers, lakes and sand dunes, a much different environment then today’s desert.

(In photo: A view across Altan Ula.)

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Fossil tour

Aug%2019.jpg I got my first look at camp this morning. The camp is surrounded by sandstone bluffs and hills on three sides.

After setting up tents, everyone met for breakfast and updated us on this year’s expedition. The expedition members include Yuong-Nam Lee, Nam-Soo Kim and Hang-Jae Lee from Korea; Ligden Barsbold and Bat Lkhaasuren from Mongolia; Phil Currie, Eva Koppelhus, Dave Eberth and Derek Larson from Canada; Yoshi Kobayashi from Japan; Louis Jacobs, John Graf and myself (Thomas Adams) from the USA. We also have two cooks, six drivers, and two workers, for a total of 23 of us in camp.

Over breakfast, John relayed his own experiences of travelling from Dallas to Mongolia. Unlike Louis and me, John had no delays on his flights. However, due to a miscommunication, there was no one to meet him when he landed in Ulaan Bataar. After waiting four hours at the airport, security became suspicious of John. Before he could be detained by officials, Yuong-Nam Lee arrived saying, “You must be John”.

After breakfast, we were taken on a tour of the fossil localities that had been discovered and were in the process of being excavated. These included a Tarbosaurus quarry, a micro bone bed, an ornithomimid quarry with dinosaur tracks, Barsboldia, a hadrosaur, quarry and a therizinosaur quarry.

The ornithomimid and therizinosaur quarries turn out to be the site of fossil poaching, which is a real problem in the Gobi. Poachers, or pirates as they are referred to here, will dig up fossils, take the skulls, feet, and hands, and leave the rest of the skeleton behind. These fossils are smuggled out of the country and sold illegally to collectors. Even though material may be missing from these sites, important fossil specimens can still be recovered. The therizinosaur locality has a large portion of the skeleton that was left behind by the poachers.

(In photo: Barsboldia caudal vertebrae.)

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Warm welcomes

Aug%2018.jpg After sleeping only a few hours over the last three days, I finally got a restful night’s sleep. There is nothing like sleeping in a tent, under a clear sky, away from the city.

We got up early and continued our trek south. We stopped in the small town of Baruunbayan Ulaan, where we met up with the large truck (affectionally called the “Kimaz”) that caused so much trouble for the earlier expedition members. The truck had engine trouble, causing the group to take six days to travel to Bugin Tsav (it would take us only two days).

As we continued south (now with five vehicles and 12 members), we stopped at one of the several ovoos along the road. An ovoo (or heap) is a type of shamanistic cairn usually made from rocks, bone and wood. When travelling, it is custom to stop and circle an ovoo three times in clockwise direction, placing a stone each time onto the pile. This is done in order to have a safer journey and secure blessings from the spirits. Blue silk scarves called Khatags are tied to the ovoo and offerings in the form of sweets, money, milk or vodka are left as well.

After crossing the Gobi Altai Range, the “Kimaz” broke down. It took a few hours for the drivers to finally get the truck running. By this time it was getting late, and we decided to continue on to base camp at Bugin Tsav instead of making camp for a second night. We arrived at base camp around 11 p.m. and were met with warm welcomes by everyone.

After introductions, food and stories of our travels, it was too late to set up tents. Louis and I decided to just unroll our sleeping bags on the sand and sleep under the stars. Lucky for us, it turns out to be a clear and calm night.

(In photo: John Graf tying a Khatag to an ovoo at Naran Bulak.)

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On the road to Bugin Tsav

Aug%2017.jpg We left Ulaan Baatar this morning and started heading southwest. Our destination is Bugin Tsav in the western Gobi Desert, approximately 100 miles from China’s northern border.

Including Ligden, Yoshi, Louis and myself, there are 10 of us in three vehicles. We are joined by members from Hwaseong City, Korea, who will be checking on the progress of the expedition. The majority of the expedition team already has been working in Bugin Tsav for the last week and half.

The Mongolian countryside is dotted with white gers (the traditional felt-lined tents) in which people live nomadic lives, herding sheep, goats, cattle, horses, camels or yaks. However, the modern world is prevalent, as many of the gers have large satellite dishes and solar panels. Occasionally, the horse has been replaced by a motorcycle for rounding up the livestock.

Along the roadside, women and children sell Mongolian tea (milk, tea, and salt), which tastes better then it sounds.

After eight hours of driving, we stopped in the town of Arvayheer for fuel. From this point we left paved roads for gravel and dirt. A few miles south of Arvayheer, we stopped at a ger for a home-cooked meal of noodles, meat (don’t know what kind), fat and potatoes served with Mongolian tea. We continued south until it got dark and made camp for the night.

(In photo: A traditional Mongolian ger with satellite dish and solar panels.)

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Fighting dinosaurs in Ulaan Baatar

Aug%2016.jpg We landed in Ulaan Baatar around 11 AM and were met by Dr. Yoshi Kobayashi (former SMU graduate student) from the Hokkaido University Museum, Japan, and Dr. Ligden Barsbold from Paleontological Center, Mongolia. We were informed that we would leave for the Gobi Desert the next morning, giving us a chance to spend the day in the capitol city.

I visited the Mongolia Natural History Museum, which houses some of the most spectacular fossils from Central Asia. The highlight of the visit was seeing the mounted skeleton of Tarbosaurus, cousin of T rex, Deinocheirus, many dinosaur eggs, and the world-famous fighting dinosaurs.

The fighting dinosaurs are a Velociraptor (made famous by the movie Jurassic Park) and Protoceratops (a relative of Triceratops) that are preserved together as if in a battle to the death. The Velociraptor’s claws of one foot are thrust in the abdomen of the Potoceratops, and Protoceratops holds the right forearm of the Velociraptor in its mouth.

We depart tomorrow by car to Bugin Tsav. Along the way, we will pick up a truck. We expect the trip to take two to possibly four days. Once there we will meet up with the rest of the expedition team, including expedition team leader Dr. Yuong-Nam Lee, former SMU graduate student, from the Korean Institute of Geoscience and Mineral Resourses, Korea, and SMU doctoral student John Graf, who left one and a half weeks earlier and is already working in Bugin Tsav.

(In photo: Tarbosaurus skeleton in the main dinosaur hall of the Mongolia Natural History Museum.)

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