I scrutinise the small pebbles, mud and shards of fossilised bone strewn over the desert floor in Bugiin Tsav, in southern Mongolia. A few metres higher up the cliff site, Chinzorig Tsogtbaatar is doing the same.
Dressed in sturdy boots and khakis, Chinzo, for short, is a PhD fellow at the Institute of Palaeontology and Geology at the Mongolian Academy of Sciences, in the capital Ulan Bator. He is examining the windswept slopes for traces of ancient fauna. We are part of an international team searching for dinosaur fossils in the Gobi Desert.
I glimpse a flash of white next to a large boulder. Instinctively, I know it’s not a stone and scratch away at the encasing mud with my fingers. I shout over to Chinzo, who joins me in excitement. Other colleagues are quickly at hand and together we carefully remove more of the mud and sand.
“It is probably the skull top of a Tarbosaurus,” Chinzo says. Seeing my blank expression, he adds, “Tarbosaurus is the cousin of the North American Tyrannosaurus rex. These were the most intimidating predators that have ever lived.”
Ever since the first fossils were found and catalogued in the early 19th century, dinosaurs have enriched the fantasies of children – and not a few adults. One of those fascinated youngsters was American Roy Chapman Andrews. Born in 1884 and driven to explore from a young age, he would become a scientist, an adventurer and a daredevil; the role model for George Lucas’ legendary character Indiana Jones, some say.
In the early 1920s, following a number of successful expeditions across China, he convinced several wealthy American businessmen, among them John D. Rockefeller and J.P. Morgan, to back a series of expeditions into the Mongolian Gobi. The main aim of what would later be known as the Central Asiatic Expeditions was to find evidence to support the theory that the cradle of mankind was in central Asia, rather than East Africa.
After lengthy preparations in the midst of the communist assumption of power in the new Mongolian People’s Republic and rumblings of civil war in China, Andrews set off into the Gobi with a unique team. He had recruited specialists in a variety of fields and led a convoy of Dodge motor cars with 25-horsepower engines into the desert. He intended to use the latest technology to maximise his chances of making significant scientific discoveries.
A few months into the 1922 expedition, the first in the series, the convoy became lost in the desert and began to run short on supplies. While Andrews was asking local herdsmen for directions, one of his team strolled away from their car and realised that they had stumbled upon a treasure trove of fossils, a spot they named the Flaming Cliffs, a reference to the red sandstone of the area.
As well as finding a range of as yet unknown dinosaur species, the team made a sensational discovery: the first nest of dinosaur eggs ever found. Four further expeditions followed, the last in 1939, during which countless more dinosaur and mammal fossils were discovered, putting Andrews on the cover of Time magazine and in 1934 helping him become director of the American Museum of Natural History.
And it was there that this story began.
“Playing in the American Museum of Natural History as a kid, the dinosaur exhibit was my favourite,” says Michael Barth, founder and chairman of the Hong Kong chapter of the Explorers Club, and the organiser of the Roy Chapman Andrews Centennial Expedition. “The larger-than-life stories of Roy Chapman Andrews were just as big a part of the exhibit as all of those amazing fossils. Knowing that the centennial anniversary of Andrews’ original explorations in the Gobi Desert was coming up, I wanted our chapter to be the first to honour his memory and accomplishments in a more meaningful way than simply staging a recreation of his original expeditions.”
Together with Matt Prior, a fellow director at the Explorers Club Hong Kong, Barth put together a 35-strong team of palaeontologists, geologists, archaeologists and other scientists, with the aim of revisiting some of the original exploration sites and using modern technology in a new phase of exploration.
“We knew that - as on Andrews’ original expeditions, in which he innovated in a number of ways, including being the first to trade camels for cars to cover more ground - we too would need to innovate in order to set a new standard for palaeontological prospecting,” says Barth, who is lucky enough to stumble upon a dinosaur egg himself during our time in Mongolia. “This is how the use of Nasa imaging and mapping tools, previously only used to better understand the geology of Mars, became a central feature of the expedition.”
Nearby, Dr Scott Nowicki is finishing his checks on a small drone equipped with a thermal camera. Nowicki is lead R&D scientist at Quantum Spatial, a United States company focusing on sensor technology, and his gadgetry has been used on recent missions to the Red Planet.
“We are looking for sandstones and mudstones and shales that were deposited during the Cretaceous era, using technology that allows us to map the presence of different compositional layers and different physical materials that are indicative of the presence of fossils,” Nowicki explains, as his drone lifts into the cloudless Gobi sky.
The thermal and multispectral cameras on the drones allow for the collection of data across a wide area. This is then compared with satellite data and correlated with observations made on the surface.
“The three-dimensional maps we create, down to the centimetre level, will aid in the exploration of the Gobi for years to come,” says Nowicki, who, with his cowboy hat and bent over his laptop in full concentration, looks like a 21st-century Indiana.
“Take your time, look carefully and when you find something interesting, take a photo and mark it on the GPS” is the introduction to dinosaur hunting that I receive from “The Doctor”.
Professor Khishigjav Tsogtbaatar, director of the Institute of Palaeontology and Geology, is one of the most respected dinosaur experts on the planet. Over the past 30 years, he has participated in numerous expeditions to unearth the secrets of the past and he is the lead scientist on this expedition.
The sandstone formations around us are about 70 million years old, dating back to a period often referred to as the Maastrichtian or late Cretaceous. That was when dinosaurs were at their most prolific, shortly before a meteor is believed to have brought an abrupt end to their existence.
“This used to be a washout, probably a river, which was a source of water,” says Tsogtbaatar. “Most of what we find here are animals that got surprised when drinking.”
It is difficult to imagine, in this now lifeless desert, the scenes of the past: hundreds of animals of various sizes – large carnivorous beasts, smaller plant eaters and tiny mammals – feasting beside a modest river, the scene suddenly shattered by a mudslide.
Evidence of the disaster millions of years ago is easy to find. I literally trip over what look like strange pieces of rock that must have only recently been exposed by wind. Their colour seems wrong, as do the small, sharp protrusions on two of the sides. They are vertebrae, most likely those of a small theropod – a meat-eating dinosaur of the same family as the Tarbosaurus. Disappointingly, they are too eroded to be of any scientific use.
The Doctor has had more luck, however, and with a small brush he is carefully revealing a piece of fossil buried in the mud.
“I think it's the rib of a Tarbosaurus,” he says. “It looks very well preserved.”
Once an interesting fossil has been discovered and its GPS coordinates marked, the palaeontologists must decide whether to take it away or, this being a prospecting expedition, to leave it for further examination at a later date. If they decide to take a fossil but it proves too delicate to pick up, a process called jacketing will be used, whereby the fossil will be coated and covered in papier-mâché and then transported, with the surrounding soil, to a laboratory at the Institute of Palaeontology and Geology.
Ideally, though, fossils of interest will be covered and excavated slowly, over a period of days and weeks, during an expedition planned for later in the year.
“We need to cover it well, as poaching is a big problem,” Tsogtbaatar says. “Recently, the Mongolian government has increased the penalties for fossil smuggling, but there is still too little being done.”
It is not just drones and GPS systems that have revolutionised palaeontology in recent years. In his book The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs (2018), American palaeontologist Steve Brusatte explains that we live in a golden age of dinosaur exploration. A new generation of scientists has collected fossils at an unprecedented rate. Somewhere in the world, one new species of dinosaur is being found, on average, every week.
New ways of studying fossils have helped palaeontologists understand the biology and evolution of dinosaurs in previously unimaginable ways. CAT scans are being used to look deep into skull and bone, and we now know, for instance, that the T. rex was probably not such a stupid brute after all.
Computer modelling gives new insights into how dinosaurs moved and high-powered microscopes can reveal their pigmentation. Recent analysis of fossils in China has shown that many theropods (a dinosaur suborder characterised by hollow bones and three-toed limbs) had feathers, hinting at ancestry shared with birds.
Even with the benefits of modern technology, though, time spent in the Gobi can be unpleasant. Midday temperatures close to 50 degrees Celsius bring prospecting activities to a temporary standstill.
The logistical challenges of this expedition are immense. It will have covered a distance of 1,600km over a period of two weeks (June 5-20), making camp at five potential fossil sites, the third being Bugiin Tsav and the first having been in the Oosh mountain region, in Ömnögovi province.
Whereas Andrews used Dodge cars, today’s team is travelling in seven SUVs, with three trucks in support, all provided by Hong Kong-based Infiniti Motor, an expedition partner.
Dinosaur hunting in Inner Mongolia: Gobi Desert a treasure trove for University of Hong Kong-led expedition
We explore the Ikh Khongil canyon, in the Nemegt Basin, a place that was beyond the reach of Andrews’ vehicles but has since given up seven full Tarbosaurus skeletons and countless other treasures, including, in 1990, the 20cm-long skull and some other bones that palaeontologists determined had belonged to a two-metre-long lizard that lived about 80 million years ago.
Chinzo discovers the tooth of a Tarbosaurus. Fourteen centimetres long, it gives some indication of how big these creatures were.
The same evening, a hard day of prospecting behind us, we set up camp in Ukhaa Tolgod. The desert is now painted onto the team’s green and khaki shirts, their wearers, after more than 10 days on the hot sands, having taken on a distinct odour. Photos and GPS markers of fossils are logged and saved for future excavations, and plans are made for the following days.
Being an Explorers Club team, everyone has a story to share; tales of climbs in the jungles of Myanmar and the deep valleys of Bhutan allow us to momentarily forget the showers and cold drinks we all long for as we relax in a circle.
“Look at the horizon,” Chinzo suddenly shouts. “Sandstorm!”
A giant wall of sand has suddenly appeared in the distance – and it is racing towards us.
Strong gusts rattle through the camp, the sand making it almost impossible to see. Together with some of the other expedition members, I cling onto the ropes and poles of our dining tent, but the gusts prove too strong. With a big “swoosh”, the pegs are ripped up and, like a giant sail, the tent is taken by the wind.
In the distance, I make out the figure of The Doctor, sitting on a camp chair outside his tent, apparently unperturbed by the storm. As I run over, he offers vodka.
“Mongolian custom – have a drink and the storm will pass quickly,” he says.
Perhaps I take too little, because the storm only rises in intensity. As evening turns into night, the winds keep up their onslaught. There is little left to do but wait out the storm in our tents, as sand is blasted against the canvas walls, which often feel set for take-off.
It rages for more than 13 hours, but we see the storm out. And the following day, we reach the Flaming Cliffs. Almost a century of excavations since Andrews’ discovery have made this particular site ever less attractive to palaeontologists, and the advanced imaging technology we are using and our drones fail to uncover many more secrets here.
Despite Andrews’ failure to prove his “Out of Asia” theory, the American did return from his expeditions having made a multitude of discoveries. Almost 100 years later, our team can count itself successful, too.
Discoveries credited to the use of the latest technology include 250 new likely fossil locations, five entirely new areas, three potential new species and hundreds of fossilised bones.
The Roy Chapman Andrews Centennial Expedition finds the hind leg of an ostrich-like dinosaur from 65 million years ago, a turtle intact from 70 million years ago, neck vertebrae of a dinosaur with a long neck and tail from the same period, and the arm of another ostrich-like dinosaur, this one dating back 70 million years.
For many of the team, though, the lasting reward is the experience of actually finding fossils – of being Indiana Jones for a few days.
“As a kid who grew up daydreaming of being on expeditions in far-flung, exotic places together with Andrews, and then to share his luck in finding a rare theropod dinosaur egg,” says Barth. “It’s mind-blowing, my childhood dream realised.”
To learn more about the Explorers Club Hong Kong Chapter, visit explorershk.org.