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Jack Tseng and Camille Grohe, postdoctoral fellows in the Division of Paleontology at the American Museum of Natural History, are blogging from the field during an expedition to Inner Mongolia. Jack’s first post is below.
On August 13, following a 14-hour plane ride from New York City, we arrived at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology in Beijing, our assembly point before our two-week expedition into the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region.
As it happens, there are two separate regions with the name “Mongolia.” Inner Mongolia, where we are, is located in northern China. The region borders nine other provinces or autonomous regions in China to the east, south, and west. To the north, the Inner Mongolia region shares more than 1,000 miles of international border with the independent nation called Mongolia (or “outer Mongolia,” as some locals call it).
Inner Mongolia also shares a sizable chunk of the Gobi Desert with Mongolia, where the famous Central Asiatic Expeditions launched by the American Museum of Natural History in the 1920s were held. It was in the Mongolian Gobi that plentiful nests and incredibly well-preserved skeletons of dinosaurs were first uncovered by expedition leader Roy Chapman Andrews and his team of explorers. But one could say that the incredible fossils discovered on this expedition likely would not have made it to New York City if not for the corridors of drivable grasslands and desert landscape of Inner Mongolia.
Being a land-locked country, early-20th-century Mongolia was not an easy place to transport supplies to, or to extract fossils from. Through arrangements made between the expedition leaders and the Chinese government, all the Museum’s supplies were unloaded at Chinese ports and housed in Beijing.
In order to reach uncharted territories deep in the Gobi, the expedition vehicles drove northward from Beijing, passing the Great Wall and the city of Kalgan (now known as Zhangjiakou) on an arterial road leading from the lower plains up onto the Mongolian plateau. From there, the area known today as Inner Mongolia provided them with trails and open terrain to push northwest into the heart of the Gobi Desert. All their discoveries had to be transported back to China and shipped from a Chinese port, eventually reaching the west coast of the United States.
Since 1990, the Museum has continued its exploration of the Mongolian Gobi through summer expeditions led by Division of Paleontology Curators Mark Norell and Mike Novacek. Modern aviation has allowed these expedition teams to assemble and head out to the field from the capitol of Mongolia, Ulan Bator, but our Inner Mongolia expeditions still trace some of the original routes from the 1920s trips. The different routes taken by the Museum’s Gobi and Inner Mongolia expeditions are not solely a matter of political boundaries, but also of geologic ones: the older, dinosaur-producing rocks are best exposed in the Mongolian Gobi, whereas the younger, mostly mammal-producing rocks are further east, within the boundaries of Inner Mongolia. It’s from these latter rocks that we’ll be searching with our colleagues from the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology for extinct mammals that lived between 20 to six million years ago. We hope to be able to share some of our adventures with you along the way.
This expedition is funded by the American Museum of Natural History and the National Natural Science Foundation of China. Additional support for this work was provided by the Franco-American Fulbright Scholar program, the AMNH Frick Fund (Paleontology), and the U.S. National Science Foundation.
Read the next post in the series here.