We Crossed the Mongolian Desert on an Epic Quest for Dinosaur Fossils
Indiana Jones would be proud.
A century ago American adventurer — and Indiana Jones inspiration — Roy Chapman Andrews used the era’s greatest advancement, the automobile, to discover dinosaur eggs in the Gobi. Exactly 100 years later, the Centennial Expedition similarly hopes to advance the field of paleontology, this time using 21 century tech: drones.
We are hunting for fossils in the Gobi Desert. Well that’s the story, anyway. The Mongolian sun hangs high overhead, illuminating every nook and hole of the red clay earth like a spotlight, and yet we have no idea what the hell we’re looking for. Our eyes scan the landscape — a miniature Grand Canyon panorama of dramatic cinnamon-colored cliffs — and yet we see nothing of interest emerge from the noise.
It is brutal work. This splash of bloodshot land is known as the Flaming Cliffs, and given the hellish coloring of the terrain the name seems apt. Nothing of note separates itself from the endless wash of red soil; no visible fossil emerges from the endless pattern of dirt and rocks.
Suddenly our building wave of frustration is broken. “Over here,” calls out Chinzorig Tsogtbaatar calmly. One of the lead researchers of this expedition, Tsogtbaatar kneels by an outcropping, examining it closely. We peer over his shoulder to see him gently brushing a white rock. Well, it appears to be a rock anyway — one not unlike the gazillion others littering the ground. But what demands Tsogtbaatar’s attention is no simple stone.
Chinzo, as he asks us to call him, has hit paleontological paydirt. What to us looks like just more meaningless rubble begins to take shape as he gingerly pokes at the surrounding soil with a tiny pick-like instrument, and then whisks the excess dirt away with a soft brush. Slowly, the white rock begins to take the form of a long bone — a possible fibula, he explains, from a Protoceratops — a smaller, hornless Mongolian cousin of the Triceratops — and one of the more common dinosaurs in this land mass.
What also takes shape along with the shinbone is exactly how difficult this work is. Standing under the torrid sun, sweat pouring down your spine, staring at a hidden fossil. This wasn’t what Indiana Jones promised in my youth, pilfering gold monkeys and running from crazed, face-melting Nazis.
This laborious chore of prospecting — the time-sucking exercise of panning vast tracts of land by naked eye for dinosaur bones-in-a-haystack — is precisely the challenge being targeted on this momentous mission: the Centennial Roy Chapman Andrews Expedition.
Exactly one hundred years ago to this month, the rakish explorer/American Museum of Natural History director Roy Chapman Andrews — not coincidentally, the alleged inspiration for Dr. Jones — first loaded up a squadron of Dodge trucks and set off across the Gobi searching to prove mankind arose from Asia, not Africa. Instead he made significant dinosaur fossil findings, and through his storm-swept adventures and 1921 book, Across Mongolian Plains, RCA became a symbol of American exceptionalism in a time before the term held any currency. And we are part of the team set to honor the 100-year anniversary of this great expedition.
One of the reasons the expedition was a landmark in paleontology was because it was the first to employ automobiles, allowing RCA and his team to cover a wider tract than on horseback. In these very Flaming Cliffs he literally stumbled across petrified spheres, discovering dinosaur eggs for the first time in history. It was a watershed moment; until then, many believed dinosaurs were mammals.
As the legendary adventurer employed contemporary technology to move the then-nascent field of paleontology forward, so too does this Centennial Expedition. The partners of the mission — the Mongolian Institute of Paleontology and Geology (IPG) and the Hong Kong Chapter of the famed Explorers Club — have swapped the 29-horsepower Dodge trucks with 400-horsepower, four-wheel-drive Infiniti QX80 SUVs and nimble QX50 crossovers. And more critically, they have updated their prospecting game with a fleet of DJI Phantom drones.
Just as RCA and his 1918 team employed mass-produced, low-cost automobiles to cover a greater area of land in their fossil pursuits, the Centennial Expedition and its 2018 team of 35 paleontologists, geologists, archaeologists, scientists, and Explorers Club members are employing mass-produced, low-cost quadcopter drones to cover an even greater area.
The final results will take years to comb through, but even preliminary findings have been impressive: more than 250 new fossil locations have been pinpointed, including five entirely new areas previously not known to contain them. Hundreds of fossilized bones were discovered as well, including those of mammals — which previously were not known to have existed in the area. One fossil they showed us was the massive dagger-like tooth of a Tarbosaurus bataar — a slightly smaller Mongolian cousin of America’s fearsome Tyrannosaurus Rex. By the size of the portion of tooth (nearly four inches long), they speculate it could belong to the biggest specimen ever found. And perhaps most importantly, Chinzo tells us, they are excited to predict at least three new dinosaur species might have been discovered.
For the record, flying the Explorer’s Club flag over the Infiniti QX80s and QX50s as they cut through the Mongolian badlands is no small feat. Having the honor of carrying one of only 202 Explorer’s Club flags is significant; since the club’s inception in 1904, for a project to fly one of their flags it has to boast serious scientific merit and potential. Explorer’s Club flags were flown over the first successful expeditions to both the North and South Pole. A flag was flown by Charles Lindbergh on his famous solo flight across the Atlantic, and Sir Edmund Hillary when he summited Mt. Everest in 1953. Neil Armstrong even hid one in his space suit when he performed the first moonwalk, and James Cameron when he piloted his Deepsea Challenger sub to the bottom of the Mariana Trench.
When RCA executed his Gobi expedition 100 years ago, Flag #2 snapped in the wind overhead as he fought off bandit attacks with his Colt pistol, and refueled his vehicles via Bactrian camel — dusty caravans would meet him along the way loaded with petrol, bullets, food and other supplies. This year the Hong Kong Chapter flew Flag #179 as they stormed the Gobi.
But the club’s role in this expedition is not only ceremonial. One might ask, quite logically, why drone technology is only now being used for the first time? Obvious question, and the answer is equally simple: funding. While the Phantom drones are relatively cheap, analyzing the data is certainly not. And Infiniti and the Explorer’s Club’s sponsoring of the expedition plays an integral role in moving the field forward.
“By using this technology, all the fieldwork goes further, faster and more productive,” Chinzo explains. The drones map an impossibly vast expanse of land using multispectral, thermal and invisible cameras, and then a team will spend the next several years analyzing that mountain of data — digitally sifting through the sandstone, mudstone and shale deposits — to determine new fossil-rich localities. All so Chinzo can spend more time excavating rather than prospecting.
Dr. Scott Nowicki — one of the lead NASA scientists behind drone mapping Mars — not only piloted the quadcopters and captured the images, but he will also lead the charge in analysis. These scientists are the best in the world for these types of applications, and without outside funding would be out of reach for the IPG.
“On one joint expedition in 2009 I found an 80 to 90% quite complete medium-sized terepod, a carnivore dinosaur,” Chinzo tells me, trying to underscore the potential value of this new technology. The problem was the team discovered the specimen on the second week of an expedition only funded for two weeks, forcing everyone to rush to excavate the skeleton in time. “The whole first week we kind of wasted, but in the middle of the second week someone finds the good stuff, and then everyone has to quickly do their work before the expedition finishes,” he says, frowning deeply. “This happens a lot.”