Where the Dinosaurs Lay: Discovering Ancient Lizards in Mongolia

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Featured photo: A 13 hour and 70 MPH sandstorm in the Gobi Desert


Crack!

I jolt up to thunder breaking the silence of the murky morning sky.

This startling awakening is a relief to my back; which had been pressed against a hard object beneath the unpadded tent floor. Yesterday, I had parted with my air mattress and sleeping bag which were placed in an evacuation vehicle transporting two injured colleagues to a regional clinic some four hours away over unforgiving terrain. As my left hand calmly sweeps the ground searching for my clothes, I pat my chest with my right and realize that I had never undressed. I open my irritated eyes and my attention is immediately diverted to a beam of light seeping through a cavity in the tent. In a moment of pure joy, I gaze at the dust particles dancing in its spotlight with thankfulness that I’ve regained my vision. With the next flash of lightning, I count Mississippi’s and sigh in relief knowing that the rainstorm will not hit us. This wind that escapes me in the morning stillness seems eerily displaced, though. We had just survived a ferocious 70-MPH sandstorm that lasted 13 hours.

Surviving the Efforts of Early Paleontologists

As I begin to defloor my tent, I ask Chinzo Tsogtbaatar, a local paleontologist on our expedition, if the magnitude of this sandstorm was common here. “No. That was the most violent I’ve ever experienced,” he replies. I chuckle as he responds. Chinzo thinks I’m reacting to something he said, but I’m not. As he was speaking, I noticed that the uncomfortable object under my tent wasn’t a rock. It was a dinosaur bone—one of more than 400 we would be unearthing over the course of a fortnight as part of a major aerial survey and fossil-finding campaign that would reveal secrets of past life in Central Asia during the Cretaceous Period, 100 million to 70 million years ago.

Chinzo is a proud member of Mongolia’s Institute of Paleontology & Geology (IPG). Directed by his father, Dr. Khishigjav Tsogtbaatar, this elite team of 82 paleontologists have quietly made some of our generation’s most significant contributions to paleontology, including most recently a detailed study of a diverse group of theropod dinosaurs known as ornithomimosaurs from the Upper Cretaceous period. In fact, IPG’s devout commitment to paleontology was the inspiration for this expedition.


Dr. Khishigjav Tsogtbaatar, Director of Mongolian Institute of Paleontology & Geology

In the early 1920’s, former Explorers Club president Roy Chapman Andrews (RCA) of the American Museum of Natural History led the first scientific expeditions here in Mongolia’s Gobi Desert. If you haven’t heard of  RCA, you may know of the action hero based on him: Indiana Jones. RCA was convinced that the geographic origin of anatomically modern humans was in Asia, not Africa. So, his original intention to survey the Gobi was to discover the bridge in evolution between apes and humans. Instead, RCA uncovered a wealth of dinosaur remains. Among most significant of these early finds were the first ever scientifically recognized dinosaur eggs, which proved definitively that dinosaurs were in fact reptiles. RCA became a local legend for this groundbreaking discovery and is revered by IPG and others as the godfather of Mongolian paleontology.

For this reason, it seemed most reasonable to recognize IPG’s profound contributions to paleontology near the centennial date of RCA’s expeditions. To do so, The Explorers Club Hong Kong Chapter – led by Chairman Michael Barth – meticulously formed a team of accomplished scientists, explorers and technologists. With Club members collectively compiling man’s most accomplished list of exploratory achievements (including first to the moon, the poles, Everest and the deepest known part of the sea), Barth didn’t have to scout beyond its talent pool to compose his team.

As members became selected, word internally began to spread about the importance of this upcoming expedition. The plan soon caught the attention of the Club’s committee head of Flag & Honors, Bob Atwater, who decided to join us.

Bob was my tentmate. Having previously completed eleven Club flag expeditions and been born earlier than most of our grandfathers, he was easily the most tenured explorer on our roster. Nevertheless, Bob chatted himself to sleep each night with the excitement of a kid at his first sleepover. But his excitement was not surprising. We were all excited. After all, together, we were writing history.

In addition to its scientific and exploratory significance, our expedition brought potential to create value for the surrounding community; which is being ripped apart by the largest environmental turmoil of our time. And, to no surprise, little of the rest of the world is aware of its delicate condition.

The Harsh Conditions of Nomadic Life

Our expedition led us deep into the provenance of Shaman origin – humanity’s oldest known expression of religiosity. Since ancient times, nomads here have given reverence to nature; for the imbalance of nature is what gives the knowledge to spirits necessary to protect the nomads. In fact, the ceremonial drum – a vehicle used by shamans (or “Buu”) to collect this knowledge – uncoincidentally sounds strikingly similar to the tone of the thunderous Gobi sky.

But the Gobi’s long-serving reputation for being a mecca for Buu to trance between reality and spirituality may also be the reason why 1.38MM of Mongolia’s 3MM inhabitants live in its capital city, Ulaanbaatar. Once home to the Great Mongolian Empire’s most prosperous trade route – the Silk Road – the Gobi has become one of Mother Nature’s most extreme personalities.

A Mongolian woman dressed in traditional attire walking across the Gobi badlands at sunset.

She can be irregularly unpleasant, too. During our two week expedition, she was moody; bogging us with 135 degree Fahrenheit heat spells that abruptly slipped 90 degrees at night. She was temptatious; revealing endless lake-like mirages which hugged the horizon but never drew nearer. She was peculiarly dangerous; slipping her most lethal scorpions, spiders and snakes into our private quarters. I, personally, was lashed at by a poisonous scorpion while close-up with my macro lens and removed a deadly spider from my shoe. This land is also the alleged home to the Mongolian Death Worm; an unknown creature rumored to instantaneously kill by means of venom spray or electric discharge.


The rainbow that hovered over our camp the morning after the sandstorm.

However, she can also be benevolent. This morning, as I finished packing my tent, she gently painted a thin rainbow over the stormy facade covering her ceiling canvas; as if revealing a portrait of herself in the sky. These hypnotic moments demonstrate that beauty is her most contagious attribute. After all, we wouldn’t be here if she didn’t have this appeal. This wholesome feeling that her sky portrait cast upon me was similar to what I felt with each personal encounter with the nomads who shared her land. Here, in the heartland of the Buu, the wind seems to breathe to the beat of the chest as the chest beats to the rush of the wind. Here, life and nature have formed a timeless friendship and have ultimately found synchronicity with one another. As the ancient Sammi song goes:

“The sun is a circle.
The earth is a circle.
The moon is a circle.
The drum is a circle.
We are a circle.”

However, there seems to be a disturbance in the link of this circle. The survival of Mongolia’s nomadic population largely depends on animal husbandry. The nomads live in yurts year round in order for their livestock to graze. But the Gobi has become the epicenter of the dzud phenomenon. This climate change nightmare has caused the Gobi’s temperature to rise more than double the global average over the past 70 years; creating unusually dry summers and equally puzzling cold winters. By March, over 700,000 heads of livestock had already been killed in 2018; some of which were found standing frozen.

“This desert is reported to be so long that it would take a year to go from end to end…

There is nothing at all to eat.”

Marco Polo

The dzud is also causing the Gobi (which translates to “large and dry”) to expand. As desertification continues to spread across southern Mongolia — now covering over 30% of Mongolian territory — more nomads are becoming affected. As if the dzud were not damaging enough, its volatility makes the area more vulnerable to unpredictable flooding; which causes immediate destruction to infrastructure and lives.

But, with water comes the promise of life.


A lizard roams the desert floor at sunset.
Life is Everywhere.

Even with such extreme conditions, the Gobi plateau is one of the world’s fastest growing biospheres. With only 5% of its landscape covered by sand dunes, the remainder is a collection of desert basins, steppes and mountains ranges. Remarkably, there is even a desert glacier (which remains tucked inside its valley’s shadow). The last wild Bactrian camels live in the Gobi. Asses, horses, goats, wolves, gazelles, oxen, and eagles all live here too. The Gobi’s king predator — the snow leopard — even makes its rare, noble appearance. Even less frequently spotted, though, is the endangered mazaalai, or Gobi Bear. This brown bear is so elusive that sightings have often mistaken it for the yeti; hence its nickname, the “Yeti Bear”. With only 22 remaining, the Gobi Bear is our planet’s only desert inhabiting bear. Next time you complain about a hot summer, think of the Gobi Bear.


A Bactrian Camel in its last wild habitat.

Life in the Gobi is nothing new, either. Its origin dates far back. In fact, life existed in this space earlier than the 65 million year old Gobi itself. During this time, the land was luscious and filled with vegetation. It had enormous trees, waterfalls and rivers. A different king roamed this once plentiful land: the dinosaur.

In fact, the Gobi was one of Earth’s richest dinosaur habitats. Yet, less is known about their existence here than most other land regions worldwide. And while IPG has done tremendous work to progress these studies, the challenges of physically prospecting this harsh environment tethered with the constant surface changes due to floods and high winds make conducting research with traditional methods in the Gobi extremely difficult. Waking up in the Gobi and retracing the area you had scouted the day prior draws similar comparison to returning to a bar the morning after to search for your favorite jacket. You may have a slight recollection of once being there, but most of it feels like a new place.

Because the Gobi is not accommodating to these traditional methods of reconnaissance and field research, we made the decision to approach our expedition with tools never before used by paleontology — namely UAVs equipped with an array of sensors to survey for ancient life in record time.

Simulations from Earth’s Mars

“Today there remain but a few small areas on the world’s map unmarked by explorers’ trails…

It means only that the explorer must change his methods.”

RCA

NASA is currently testing new UAV technologies in New Mexico’s Chihuahuan desert. Once these UAVs learn to properly execute our commands, they will be awarded by being blasted into space on a terminal mission to Mars. Upon reaching our neighbor planet, these UAVs will build data simulations based on regions they survey in order to architect a much larger equation for Mars’ total surface area. This analysis will map Mars’ sedimentary composition and flag sites of interest. One of the purposes for flagging points of interest is to search for evidence of past life on the big red planet.

Badlands in the Gobi stand as tall as a small mountain ranges.

Similar to NASA’s objective, our interest in the Gobi was to survey an extreme terrain in search of ancient life. So, it was fitting for this technology to join us. And, as expected, it proved to be a useful companion.

Our new approach to paleontological mapping uses UAVs to scan the floor with multispectral and thermal cameras to locate sandstones, mudstones and shales that were deposited during the Jurassic or Cretaceous eras. These UAV-mounted spectral camera systems are sensitive to the compositional variations of fossil-bearing units relative to their surrounding units and sediment cover at the sub-meter scale. This allows field crews to be able to map fine-scale variations in sediment provenance that may correspond to the occurrence of fossil-rich layers at scales far greater than can be traditionally field mapped. It compares these mappings to satellite data to correlate our observations with geological properties in regions not yet visited. However, the satellite images are of too poor resolution to build our final product so any regions of interest discovered from these comparative analyses are then mapped by our team physically visiting the locality to run aeriel grid patterns with the UAVs while our field team also simultaneously collects ground data points.

Our final product — compiled by Scott Nowicki and Drew Wendeborn of Quantum Spatial — is a collection of three-dimensional maps, down to the centimeter level, to aid in the exploration of the Gobi for years to come. These maps can be used by various other forms of technologies too, including virtual reality, to form online armies of explorers equipped with the necessary tools to prospect unexplored regions of the Gobi from their living room. Imagine being in your pajamas and eating pasta while you and your friends — each logged in from their home networks – virtually prospect the Gobi floor and dig below its surface to discover new dinosaur species that rest at those exact geopoints in the actual Gobi floor.

A drone operator flies the craft over badlands in the search for ancient fossils.

Without even completing these mappings yet, our expedition has already discovered over 450 dinosaur fossils; including 3 new species (an ostrich-type species, a turtle-like species and a neck vertebrae from an unknown species), a dinosaur egg, a tarbosaurus skull, and the remains of potentially the largest sauropod ever located in Mongolian territory. In fact, there wasn’t an evening that our team reported back to camp without sharing the excitement of a significant new discovery. I personally found more than 60 fossils, including some of those mentioned above. I also found a coprolite (a fossilized dinosaur turd), which the IPG researchers did not find to be as momentous as I did.

The foot of a tarbosaurus. The tarbosaurus was a smaller, smarter and more dangerous version of a tyrannosaurus rex.

However, technology alone is as useless as a hammer without a hand.

Since few of our non-Mongolian team members had ever discovered a dinosaur prior, we could have claimed that these discoveries were made because we are the most exceptional pack of explorers on this planet. But that would not be the truth. The reality is that they were made because IPG could optimize their talent when connected to our network’s technologies. The amplification of their expertise via this technology equipped every team member with the capability to make more significant contributions to science.

Collaboration Over Conquest

In most historical expeditions, it is common practice for the local partner to become overshadowed by the funding foreign party’s public display of its team’s discoveries. However, our expeditions obey an inverse model. With the world becoming increasingly more inhabited and earthly resources more scarce, we apply a more inclusive, innovative and impactful approach to exploration that Barth sums up as “Collaboration over Conquest”. Adhering to this policy in the Gobi, all material finds stayed in country, all data and mappings were shared and local capacity development around learning to use the technology continues; ultimately empowering IPG’s talent to be even more successful in making future advances in paleontological studies. After all, they are the field experts – not us.


A student at the Mongolian Institute of Paleontology & Geology makes the first dinosaur fossil discovery of his early career.

This collaborative model resonates well with my own career in another culturally and environmentally precious place, the Kingdom of Bhutan; where I’ve resided since 2013. Here, alongside my long-time friend and colleague, His Royal Highness Prince Jigyel Ugyen Wangchuck, we have installed technologies and programs that preserve the natural essence of the place and the individuality of its surrounding community – which I refer to as its ‘Inherent Setting’. As the digital era has entered us into a rapidly developing society that attracts quick business, places that expose themselves to this common approach to globalization experience disintegration of the bond between its environment, culture and society; ultimately deteriorating the uniqueness of its Inherent Setting.


A little girl follows her father as he rounds his herd of camels.

Bhutan is  the world’s only carbon negative country. It is home to the most remote self-sustaining villages. It is believed by Vajrayana Buddhists to carry the last of the beyuls, or hidden lands. Its government positions happiness as its leading policy driver and, as a result, its people are safe and content. For these reasons and countless others, as Inherent Settings are becoming endangered around the globe, Bhutan’s seems to shine in comparison. Since millions of years have been spent developing a planet rich in geography and anthropology, each place has the potential to develop similar models that accentuate and protect the beauty of a place and the beauty of the people who live in that place. To support this type of growth, it must be sensitive about maintaining the integrity of its Inherent Setting.


The morin khuur (also known as the horsehead fiddle) is a traditional bowed stringed instrument.

The Buu’s belief of imbalance implies that everything will always change. How we react to this change will determine the likelihood of survival. The dzud poses a major challenge for the survival of the nomads. But with such diversity in its landscape and richness in culture, these communities would benefit from a growth model that values its Inherent Settings. For this model to work, it is critical to engage the nomadic population.

They Belong Beneath Our Soil

Mongolia’s most popular tourism destination, the Flaming Cliffs, is where RCA found the first dinosaur eggs. Andrews dubbed this region the Flaming Cliffs for the fiery red hue of its sediments in the late day sun. Fittingly, watching sunset at the famed Flaming Cliffs has become Mongolia’s most popular tourism activity. If the Lion King were nonfiction, these cliffs would be the location where Mufasa told baby Simba that the Kingdom stretched as far as the light hit the ground. It is truly one of the most dramatic sunsets you’ll ever witness.


The Flaming Cliffs: Mongolia’s most popular tourist attraction.

On a daily basis, hundreds of tourists drive from the capital to watch this spectacle, sleep at nearby ger camps and then wake the next morning to hurry back to the capital. While the cliffs have been very generous to Mongolia’s tourism industry, they could become the motherboard for surviving and nurturing the last of Mongolia’s Inherent Settings; allowing foreign travelers to enter a deeper, more profound and meaningful passage into the heart of Mongolian people and place.


Since the 1970’s, livestock herders have transitioned from horses to motorcycles.

Imagine an experience where a select group of foreign travelers didn’t spill back to the capital after the sunset. Instead, they were welcomed into the homes of local nomads where they became captivated in conversation of local folklore, participated in Throat Singing, Long Song and danced biyelgee, learned to cook khorkhog, and met the family’s favorite camel. Then, in the morning while alongside a member of IPG, were taught how to differentiate a rock from a fossil and, by the end of the day, found a dinosaur themselves. This discovery was then recorded by IPG and the traveler left Mongolia happy to have contributed to sustaining Mongolia’s Inherent Setting.

There is an attractive energy that fills a community inspired by these programs, too. As Mongolia’s price of fuel dropped in the 1970’s, livestock herders traded their horses for motorcycles. Not only did this pollute the Gobi, it compromised them of a piece of their lineage that had survived them for generations. However, since these programs create opportunity for nomads to participate in an activity that promotes clean environment and accentuated culture, less nomads end up tending to livestock; and many that do find more benefit in getting back on their horses.

With dinosaur hunting being a core activity for this traveler’s experience, locals discover the economic value in protecting the dinosaur as their national treasure. This leads to less poaching and illegal transactions with foreign smugglers. Soon, it becomes taboo for locals to remove dinosaurs from their final resting places because the dinosaur has become most valuable to the community when left in the ground. In this regard, the dinosaur may even be the vital resource to bettering the wellbeing of the local community; ultimately surviving the last of the nomads and their Inherent Settings.

Similar to my work in Bhutan, these are the programs my team has started to develop for Mongolia. With so many subcultures and vast geographies, Mongolia has a plethora of Inherent Settings that could benefit from this responsible form of development.


The vast, open desert is one of the many geoscapes of Mongolia.
The Trade

If you do visit the Gobi on one of these programs, dinosaur bones may not be the only type of broken bones that you’ll find laying on the desert floor. Unfortunately, the Gobi thunder was not the only crack that I heard, either.

Suffering a broken leg during my first stint as a Mongolian wrestler. PC: Mike Sakas

To preface this story, I will start by noting that I always considered myself to be a good wrestler. I grew up fending off four siblings for the last slice of pizza, scuffled my way through boarding school hallways and spent my last seven years as the chillup (the term for ‘foreigner’ in Bhutan’s native language, Dzongkha) chosen to keshey (a belt grappling form of wrestling) Royal Body Guards for evening entertainment during our monthly campout sessions deep in the jungles. Oh, and of course, there has always only been one chillup in the group. However, I can assure you that my entire Mongolian wrestling career lasted less than five minutes.

On the final evening of our expedition, in an ironic twist (I am referring to ‘twist’ metaphorically here), I found myself on the ground with my wrestling opponent, Maina, tumbling across me. I won’t get into much detail to prevent from feeling squeamish, but the loser of the wrestling match was my severely broken leg. This was not a cookie cutter break, either. Call to mind the way Gordon Hayward’s leg was twisted when he took a fall against Cleveland. Then twist it a little more and add shards of misplaced bone halfway up to the knee.

My first reaction was that perhaps Maina — being a paleontologist  — didn’t appreciate the way I handled one of the dinosaur bones that day. However, after seeing the immediate worry in his eyes I realized we had just been involved in a terrible freak accident. Needless to say, minutes later, I became the third team member to be evacuated from camp.

I was thrown into the bed of one of our INFINITI vehicles, which had already safely carried us over 2,200 kilometers. With no pain killers or brace for stabilization, my colleague, Ian Mangiardi, literally laid on top of my leg to prevent it from bouncing on the rough, roadless terrain as we sped off to the nearest medical facility — some four hours away.


Much of the Gobi Desert is without phone and data connectivity.

It was dark at this point and Tegshee, my colleague who had courageously taken the wheel, drove through the desert so skillfully that you would have thought he was retracing tracks in his backyard. However, with no phone or data connectivity in the Gobi, our expedition relied on walkie talkies to communicate. So, once you fall too far away from the pack, as we did now, you were on your own. Go the wrong direction, run out of gas or get stuck in a soft pocket of sand and the rest of the journey can only be by feet — or, in my case, foot. Then, factor in the wolfpacks and other poisonous creatures that roam the desert at night and you could only further imagine the importance of Tegshee being such an experienced driver.

Along the ride, I fell into shock. At first only my limbs went numb, but the numbness soon crept up the left side of my face and subsided near eye level. I was unable to process words clearly and became abnormally tired. Ian and I were concerned of the danger of my going unconscious and so we agreed that we would talk until we arrived. We reminisced on the adventures we shared together in the Himalayas. We shared stories about our families and others whom we loved. It is bizarre how the mind is unable process normal conversations when in a disturbed state, but finds clarity in understanding the meaningful instances that make life precious.

Explorers Club Hong Kong Chapter Member, Ben Draper, holds a vertebrae of a cousin of a brontosaurus in disbelief.

Upon arriving at our destination, we woke up two medical practitioners to evaluate my leg. At first glance of my leg, I’m pretty sure the doctors temporarily went into deeper shock than I had just returned from. At this moment it occurred to me that I was their first trauma patient. Their immediate suggestion was that I catch the next flight to Hong Kong (in two days) to get my ankle reset and have leg surgery. However, we feared that I would suffer nerve damage which could lead to amputation if we waited any longer for the ankle to be reset, so we requested they do it immediately. They looked at me with great concern and went to the nearby room where they took to whispering. Minutes later, they bravely returned and reported that they would relocate my ankle. I was delighted. Kind of.

I was instructed to lay on my belly as they injected painkillers into my buttocks. They then began to twist away at my ankle. The relocation took about ten minutes; much longer than a standard case. Once the ankle was relocated, about 80% of my pain had been relieved. We thanked them, paid our $80 fee, and continued to drive through the night to the capital.

The following evening, Ian and I took a flight out of Ulaanbaatar so that I could return to the states for an emergency surgery. However, we swung by the farewell dinner prior on our way out to thank everyone for lifelong memories and new friendships. While at the dinner, I realized that Maina was emotionally distraught. Another IPG member told me that he had quit his job immediately after the event. To me, this act further demonstrated the genuine care for humanity and responsibility that Mongolians carry inside themselves. After a private conversation with him, his personality seemed to have been restored. Before I knew it, he was taking thumbs up photos of himself with my leg.

Weeks later, I learned that Maina did not quit his job. He, and various other IPG colleagues, were also honored with membership to The Explorers Club for their significant and ongoing contributions to paleontology. I applaud his courage to overcome any inner remorse and his dedication to remain committed to his profession. He is destined to do great things for paleontology. I look forward to watching this develop.

The colorful sand dunes of the Gobi.
Dream to Explore

The Buus believe that creation is never complete and that we help dream the world into being. The same can be said for exploration.


The Gobi is home to the provenance of Shaman origin – humanity’s oldest known expression of religiosity.

As a child, I’d roam my backyard looking for dinosaur bones. In fact, I still have a collection of rocks in my closet which I once believed to be fossils. Thirty years later, I had ventured into a land almost forgotten with time; a place a thousand years removed from human activity. Here, I found real dinosaurs. Without those childhood dreams, this progression would never have happened.

As I sit here writing my final thoughts, I watch my nephews scrummage through their backyard in search of fossils. With every interesting piece they find, they rush it over to me for further investigation. I also received two texts today. One was a picture of Barth’s son on his way to school and dressed in expedition gear similar to his father’s uniform. The other was from my grandmother with photos of what she believed to be arrowheads from her garden. This is the Sammi referenced circularity of the dream, fueled by all ages. As we continue in this circular series of events, expeditions like ours in the Gobi inspire a domino effect for exploration. This March, alongside our IPG expedition teammates and now fellow Club members, we will receive the Citation of Merit for this expedition; which James Cameron has described as the ‘Academy Awards of exploration’. I hope that this award inspires other dreamers, like my nephews, to continue their quest for exploration.

It has been eight months since I’ve started my recovery in the States. This is the longest period of time I’ve spent here since 2012. It is an understatement to say I’m eager to return to the field. I often close my eyes to relive a memory of an evening we spent laying on the desert floor after dark. I would turn my head in every direction in amazement at the expanse of the clear, starlit sky. Next time I return to the Gobi, I have pledged to be more aware of the signals in the firmament. Perhaps this will help me uncover a few more of the many secrets hidden in the Land of the Eternal Blue Sky. I dream that you will do this too, no matter where you are on this enchanting planet we all call home.

Thunder strikes. Time to bring the little Indiana Jones’ inside.

A peak in the “Singing Sands” (aka Khongor Els Sand Dunes)

Article and photos by Matt DeSantis. To learn more, visit mybhutan.com.

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