Photograph by Louie Psihoyos, Science Faction Jewels/Getty Images
Photograph by Matthew Mihlbachler
Few places on Earth can tell us more about dinosaurs than Mongolia. There, the Gobi desert blankets a rich treasure trove of uniquely well preserved fossil skeletons. Yet today, the Mongolian paleontologists capable of exploring these wonders may suffer an extinction of their own: they’ve reached retirement age with no new generation trained to follow in their footsteps.
One rare exception, Bolortsetseg Minjin, makes attracting other young Mongolians to her field a priority. As a specialist in vertebrate fossils from 145 million to 65 million years ago, she’s made numerous expeditions throughout the Gobi. Along the way she has discovered several rich exposures of fossils in the Gobi and has amassed an important collection of dinosaurs and mammals for her native country. Now, the discoveries she covets the most are new students who will keep Mongolian paleontology alive.
“When my generation was growing up,” she explains, “a wall existed between science and the public. Very few of us were exposed to any information about dinosaurs; sadly that’s still true today.” Because Bolortsetseg’s father is a paleontologist, she gained early insight into the field, ultimately embracing it herself.
Bolortsetseg views Mongolia’s dearth of future experts as a special tragedy considering the extraordinary significance of the fossil record there. The area yields an impressive diversity of species. Even more important, skeletons unearthed in Mongolia are often completely intact and unusually well preserved. “In other parts of the world,” she notes, “you discover isolated bones that have been scattered—carried off by animals, damaged by exposure to harsh weather, swept away in rivers. Here in the Gobi, many dinosaurs must have died instantly, in a very unique way.”
Scientists speculate that at the dinosaur’s zenith, parts of Mongolia’s landscape were marked by enormous sand dunes. Dinosaurs probably took advantage of oases nestled between the dunes. A torrential rain of monsoon proportions may have sent the towering dunes tumbling, burying the dinosaurs immediately and completely, for tens of millions of years. Now, as then, the Gobi remains isolated, landlocked, arid, and sparsely populated—a perfect recipe for preservation.
Bolortsetseg describes, “When you explore a site, with the light at just the right angle, and spot a fragment of bone extending up through the sand, it’s very, very exciting. We’ve pulled out fossils weighing two tons; the discoveries can be truly amazing.”
Today Bolortsetseg hopes to inspire that same sense of wonder in local children through outreach programs with schools, museums, and the nation’s educational TV channel. She also established the Institute for the Study of Mongolian Dinosaurs. It provides a research facility, expedition vehicles, equipment, technicians, and scholarships for Mongolian students. Some of these students have gone to universities in the West to get a paleontological education that is not yet available in Mongolia. “I hope that by creating this professional environment,” she explains, “we’ll give students a reason to return to work as paleontologists in Mongolia.”
She also taps future human potential with summer workshops bringing children and teachers to the Gobi for three days of nonstop dinosaur exploration. Launched with help from the U.S. Museum of the Rockies, the hands-on program takes children up the dinosaur learning curve, sends them on field excursions to collect samples, and offers access to lab facilities, tools, and methods.
“When kids arrive, many aren’t even sure dinosaurs ever really existed, or they think they were fire-breathing monsters. There isn’t a single children’s book about dinosaurs in their language. So they’re thrilled and excited to have this chance. After all, kids are natural scientists. If we reach just one child who goes on to become part of a new generation of paleontologists it will be worth it.”
Bolortsetseg hopes efforts like this will also reduce the indiscriminate looting of fossils throughout the area. “We want kids and other locals to understand the incredible scientific value of treasures they find right in their own backyard.”
“To much of the outside world, it’s dinosaurs that put Mongolia on the map,” she notes. “Yet most people who live here neither understand nor appreciate this national treasure.” Bolortsetseg hopes to transform awareness by one day creating a Mongolian paleontology museum. Designs have been submitted and funding efforts are under way. “When I was in New York completing my Ph.D., the Museum of Natural History was such an inspiration. I want that for Mongolia.”
“Now more than ever,” Bolortsetseg believes, “we can learn much from the example of dinosaurs and how events can change the entire natural world. It should make us think seriously about what we can do to protect our environment, lessen our impact, and prevent new extinctions from occurring today.”
Meanwhile, she works to connect children with the creatures that roamed their neighborhood millions of years ago. “Shouldn’t the people who were born in this place help discover its own amazing past?”
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In Thier Words
Scientists come from around the world to explore Mongolia’s dinosaur fossils. I want to inspire a new generation of our own paleontologists to make these discoveries.
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Paul Sereno earned a doctorate in geology at Columbia University and joined the faculty of the University of Chicago in 1987.
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