Flaming Cliffs (65 kilometers northwest of Dalanzadgad) is where great dinosaur discoveries were made in the 1920s by Roy Chapman Andrews’ Expedition (See Below). The area around it appears to be a rolling steppe. Drive on and suddenly you realize you are at the top of an escarpment looking down on canyons of red cliffs. Beyond the cliffs is a flat desert floor.
The Flaming Cliffs (Bayanzag in the Bulgan sum) is where many of fossils in the Natural History Museum in Ulaan Baatar were found. Among the great finds made here by the Chapman expedition were petrified forests, remains of one of the largest mammals ever known, complete dinosaur skeletons and dinosaur eggs. Fossils of over a hundred different prehistoric animals were found here. Many significant dinosaur skeletons from the late Cretaceous period have been found in the Gobi desert's dry climate has also preserved later mammal and plant fossils. of great significance.
The area continues to searched today and new discoveries are still made. A "spectacular" fossil of a mother Oviraptor guarding a clutch of eggs was discovered near Ukhaa Toigod in southern Mongolia in 1993. The eggs were "arranged in a circular pattern, with the large end of the eggs facing inward," paleontologist mark Norell wrote. This finding was offered as proof of the bird-dinosaur connection by suggesting that dinosaurs engaged in nesting behavior that was more consistent with the behavior of birds than reptiles. Oviraptor means "egg thief" and the dinosaur was given the name because when it was first discovered in 1923 it was supposedly stealing eggs from a Protoceratops nest. Later it was discovered the eggs were Oviraptor eggs and not Protoceratops eggs and the Oviraptor was inappropriately named.
Roy Chapman Andrews and the Great Gobi Desert Dinosaur Hunt
One of the greatest dinosaur hunts of all time took place in the early 1920s in the Gobi Desert, then one of the remotest and least explored regions on earth. The "biggest land expedition to leave the United States" was led by a charismatic explorer named Roy Chapman Andrews [Source: Douglas Preston, Smithsonian magazine; National Geographic]
'The Great Central Asiatic Expedition," wrote Douglas J. Preston in Smithsonian magazine, "explored central Asia and China for eight years, from 1922-30, spending most of the summers in Mongolia and the winters in China. The area they explored was huge: some 2,000 miles long by 1,000 miles wide."
“Camp life was hard and often dangerous. They were beset by violent windstorms and shot at by bandits and Chinese soldiers; vipers invaded their tents; camels died by the dozen; their cars broke down. When it wasn't burning hot (they once recorded a temperature of 140 degrees F) it was freezing cold and snowing. But for these men, the surreal beauty of Outer Mongolia and the spectacular successes of the expedition dwarfed all misery and hardship."
Roy Andrew Chapman
Chapman (1844-1960) is believed to have been the model for Indiana Jones in the Steven Spielberg movies. According to Preston, Andrews was an "explorer first and an a scientist second." In his journals he described how "he relished the occasional skirmishes with bandits and recalled with fondness being shot at by Chinese soldiers." He usually carried a 6.5mm Mannlicher rifle in his right hand and a revolver tucked into a loaded cartridge belt around his waist. He was very handsome and his outfit looked like a Canadian mounty uniform, minus the red jacket.
American newspaper readers avidly consumed Chapman's stories he wrote about bandits, who rode humped Bactrian camels, herdsmen in black knee-length tunics (dels), snakes, sandstorms, and the mythical sand serpent Allergorhai horhai as well as dinosaurs
Chapman's mission was not to find dinosaur bones but rather tot find early humans bones and probe a long-forgotten theory that the missing link between apes and men evolved in Central Asia. His mission was to find evidence of prehistoric humans. He later explored Burma, China. Alaska and Borneo and wrote about his adventures there but none of these garnered as much attentions as his Mongolia trip.
Standing on the Great Wall of China on April 21, 1922, at the beginning of the expedition, Andrews wrote: "Before us lay Mongolia, a land of painted deserts dancing in a mirage: of limitless grassy plains and nameless snow-capped peaks; of untracked forests and roaring streams...The hills swept away in a far-flung graceful lines of a panorama so endless that we seemed to have reached the very summit of the earth."
Chapman’s expedition consisted of a caravan of Model-T-style motorcars supplied with gasoline and other things by 75 camels. Escorted by the Chinese cavalry, the caravan tried to follow old trade routes, where centuries of padded camels feet had "beaten down a perfect road." Obstacles included huge boulders and vast rock-strewn expanses. When the cars got in deep sand, they were unloaded so the wheels could be dug out and strips of rope-reinforced canvas could be placed in the track.
The camels were not only useful as pack animals. Hair from the shedding animals proved an ideal packing material for the boxed and carted fossils. The only problem was when the camels were stripped of their hair too quickly they developed a bad cold and would "whimper in the most disconsolate way, while great tears ran out his eyes."
The local Mongols were terrified of the expedition: on one occasion a Mongol woman actually went into convulsions when the caravan approached. The travelers were equally terrified of the Mongol dogs which often traveled in large packs and had developed a taste for human flesh because the Mongols did not customarily bury their dead. One of expeditions's first stops in Mongolia was small, deserted temple, around which were well-fed feral dogs and soldier's uniforms and monk's robe with weathered human bones inside them.
Chapman wrote the Gobi was "studded with giant battles like strange beasts" and cliffs like "medieval castles with spires,turrets, brick red in the evening sun." His team hilled 47 vipers that had crawled into their tents. Chapman was known for his exageration. A member of his team said, “When water was up to our ankles it was up to Chapman’s neck.” The only injury sustained by Chapman was when he accidently shot himself in the foot with his revolver.
Dinosaur Eggs and Chapman's Fossil Discoveries
The first dinosaur bones were discovered by Chapman’s expedition were found in April 1922 on the summit of a ridge, a few miles west of a tiny settlement called Iren Dabasu. "I knew something unusual had happened," Andrews wrote after Walter Granger, chief paleontologist of the expedition, approached him after returning from a survey, "because no one said a word. Granger's eyes were smiling and he was puffing violently on his pipe. Silently he dug into his pockets and produced a handful of bone fragments; out of shirt came a rhinoceros tooth, and the various folds of his upper garments yielded other fossils." After pausing a moment Granger said, "Well Roy...We've done it. The stuff is here." Later that day when he visited the site, Andrews wrote, "I saw a great bone, beautifully preserved, outlined in the rock. There was no doubt it was a dinosaur."
The Gobi was filled with fossils. Once the expedition discovered a Buddhist shrine made entirely of bones from a a long-extinct rhinoceros-like animal, one of the largest known mammals ever discovered. The richest site was Shabarakh Usu, a small oasis 600 miles west of Kalgan in the foothills of the southern Altai mountains. In this "chaos of ravines and gullies cut deep into red sandstone" Andrews found a fossil skeleton on September 1, 1922 on some soft sandstone "ready to be plucked." Chapman;s team found more than 100 dinosaurs, including Proteceratops, Velicraptors (“Swift Robber”), of Jurassic Park fame, Oviraptor (“Egg Thief”), found stealing the eggs of another dinosaur.
At Shabarakh Usu, a young paleontologist named George Olsen made the expedition's greatest discovery—dinosaur eggs. "Inasmuch as the deposit was obviously Cretaceous and too early for large birds," Andrews wrote, "we did not take his story very seriously. We felt quite certain that his so-called eggs would prove to be sandstone concretions or some other geological phenomena."
After visiting the site he wrote: "We saw a small sandstone ledge, beside which were lying three eggs partly broken. The brown striated eggshell was so egglike that there could be no mistake...Finally we had to admit that 'eggs are eggs' and that we could make them out to be nothing else. It was evident that dinosaurs did lay eggs and that we had discovered the first specimens known to science." Upon seeing the eggs Chapman dropped to his knees. Later he wrote the eggs had "the shape of a loaf of French bread."
The discovery of the eggs was big news back home in America. William Randolph Hearst gave Andrews $250,000 for an exclusive story on the eggs and the rest of the expedition's discoveries, which included finding of skull of tiny shrew-like mammal that lived during the Age of the Dinosaurs — in itself a monumental discovery. Also found was a rhino-like creature three times the size of an elephnat, thought to be the largest land mammal that ever lived.
Sandstorms and Bandits and the Chapman Expedition
The greatest hardships were caused by fierce sandstorm that swept down from Siberia and sometimes blew gravel and sand into the air for days. Describing one such storm, Andrews wrote: "I suddenly became conscious that the air was vibrating with a continuous even roar, which was getting louder each second...In the gray light of dawn we could see an ominous bronze cloud hanging over the rim of the basin." Ten minutes later the storm struck "like a burst of a high-explosive shell. Even with my head covered I heard the rip and crash of falling tents. As our tents swept away, [Granger] had leapt to save the six tiny fossil Cretaceous mammal skulls." The wind tore the clothes off Andrews back and the wind lashed his skin until it bled. "Had our cars not been facing the wind," Andrews wrote, "they would have certainly been overturned." Even so the windshields were so sandblasted they had to be knocked out before the expedition could continue.
Mongol bandits, who made their living by robbing caravans and murdering traders, were another problem, and the expedition carried a machine gun for protection. Once, when a group of mounted bandits blocked the caravan route, Andrews drew his gun, shouted at the tops of his lungs, and drove his car directly at the bandits. The Mongol horses, which had probably never seen a car before, began bucking and rearing with fright. "In a second the situation had changed!" Andrews wrote. "The only thing the brigands wanted to do was get away, and they fled in panic. When I last saw them they were breaking all speed records on the other side of the valley."
As the eight-year expedition wore on, Outer Mongolia fell increasingly under Soviet control and China became increasing embroiled in bloody civil wars. After 1925, the expedition was followed by Soviet spies and harassed by Soviet secret police (Andrews felt sorry for one spy who tried to follow the expedition by camel and gave the Russian a lift in his car).
In 1928, the expedition's collection was seized by the Chinese in Klagan and the expedition members were accused of smuggling opium and illegally exploring for oil and minerals. Large bribes were necessary to secure the collection and get the expedition safely out of the country. In 1930, the situation in Mongolia and China was so dangerous that the sponsor of the expedition, the American Museum of Natural History, ordered the expedition home.
Dinosaur Fossil Sites in the Mongolian Gobi
Dinosaur Fossil Sites in the Mongolian Gobi include: 1) Tugrugee Shireh, where fighting dinosaurs were found; and 2) Ulaan Tsav; and Khermeen Tsav, a relatively unexplored region in the western Gobi. 3) Ukhaa Tolgood is a Gobi site known in the Nemegt basin in Mongolia near the Chinese border, has been described as the world's best fossil site. Discovered in 1993, it has produced exceptionally well-preserved fossils of more than 1,000 animals of 20 species of mammal and reptile dated from 71 million to 75 million years ago. Finds have included dinosaur embryos, egg nests, early mammals, anklosaurus plates and dinosaurs with birdlike features. Many were buried in a catastrophic event.
The Cretaceous Dinosaur Fossil Sites in the Mongolian Gobi was nominated to be a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2014. These sites are in Zuunbayan, and Ulaanbadrakh soums of Dornogovi province; Khanbogd, Manlai, Bulgan and Gurvantes soums of Umnugovi province; and Bayangovi soum of Bayankhongor province.
According to a report submitted to UNESCO: The Mongolian Gobi Desert is the largest dinosaur fossil reservoir in the world. The region is especially important as regards dinosaur fossils from the later Cretaceous period, which is the last of main three periods of the dinosaur age, representing the final phase of dinosaur evolution. Over a history of almost 100 years of dinosaur research, more than 80 genera of dinosaurs have been found in the Mongolian Gobi Desert and identified in science as individual groups, and over 60 fossil sites of dinosaurs and other vertebrates are being discovered by their spato-temporal distribution (from the earlier ages until late) across the Gobi Desert. [Source: Mongolian National Commission for UNESCO]
Palaeontologists still continue to discover fossils that prove the current territory of Gobi Desert had a very different climate and environment before 120 to 70 million years ago during the Cretaceous period. 120 million years ago the vast desert basins and valleys contained freshwater rivers and lakes with abundant water resources. And the prevailing humid climate was paradise for plants and animals, including dinosaurs. The fossil evidence of the origin, evolution, migration and extinction of prehistoric creatures are preserved in the sedimentary rocks of the Gobi desert. These evidences give knowledge and understanding of our mother land – the earth, and its history. The
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Cretaceous Dinosaur Fossil Sites in the Mongolian Gobi
The three main clusters of Cretaceous fossil sites are:
1) Fossil sites of Early Late Cretaceous period- Bayan Shirenian age (Cenomanian-Turonian) or Lower Upper Cretaceous, “Bayanshiree Formation” (90 million years ago);
2) Fossil sites of Middle Late Cretaceous period-Djadokhtian age (Campanian) or Middle Upper Cretaceous, “Djadokhta Formation” (80 million years ago);
3) Fossil sites of Late Late Cretaceous period – Nemegtian age (Maastrichtian) or Upper Upper Cretaceous, “Nemegt Formation” (70 million years from now).
The richest dinosaur fossil sites are frequently found in areas, such as Bayanshiree, Khongil Tsav, Amtgai, Baishin Tsav, Urulbu khudag, Shar Tsav in the Eastern part of Gobi Desert; Bayanzag, Tugrugiin Shiree, Zamiin Khond and Uuden Sair in the Central part of Gobi region; and Ukhaa Tolgod, Nemegt, Altan Uul, Khermen Tsav, Bugiin Tsav and Guriliin Tsav in the Western part of Gobi region. Nominating dinosaur fossil sites as follows:
I. Paleontological heritage sites of Bayanshirenian (Cenomanian-Santonian) age
Component 1: Bayanshiree - Late Cretaceous (Bayanshirenian age), international correlation: Cenomanian-Santonian, 97.5-88.5 million years ago.
Component 2: Khongil Tsav - Late Cretaceous (Bayanshirenian age), international correlation: Cenomanian-Santonian, 97.5-88.5 million years ago.
Component 3: Burkhant - Late Cretaceous (Bayanshirenian age), international name: Cenomanian-Santonian, 130-100 million years ago.
Component 4: Baishin Tsav – Late Cretaceous (Bayanshirenian age), international name: Cenomanian-Santonian, 130-100 million years ago.
Component 5: Khuurai Tsav - Late Cretaceous (Bayanshirenian age), international name: Cenomanian-Santonian, 130-100 million years ago.
Component 6: Urulbu Khudag - Late Cretaceous (Bayanshirenian age), international name: Cenomanian-Santonian, 130-100 million years ago.
Component 7: Shar Tsav - Late Cretaceous (Period of Nemegt Formation), international name: Maastricht era, 71-65 million years ago.
Component 8: Amtgai – Late Cretaceous (Period of Bayanshiree Formation), international name: Cenomanian-Santonian, 130-100 million years ago.
II. Paleontological heritage sites of Djadokhta (Campanian)
Component 9: Bayanzag - Upper Cretaceous (Period of Djadokhtian), international name: Campanian; 84-71 million years ago.
Component 10: Tugrugiin Shiree - Upper Cretaceous (Period of Djadokhtian), international name: Campanian; 84-71 million years ago.
Paleontological heritage sites of Nemegt (Maastricht)
Component 11: Nemegt – Upper Cretaceous (period of Nemegtian formation), international name: Maastrichtian; 71-65 million years ago.
Component 12: Khermen Tsav - Upper Cretaceous (period of Nemegtian Formation), international name: Maastrichtian; 71-65 million years ago.
Component 13 : Bugiin Tsav - Upper Cretaceous (period of Nemegtian formation), international name: Maastrichtian; 71-65 million years ago.
Importance of the Dinosaur Fossil Sites in the Mongolian Gobi
According to a report submitted to UNESCO: While the study of dinosaurs began in the mid-1800s, initial surveys in Mongolia began in the early 20th century. In 1922 the Central Asiatic Expedition of the American Museum of Natural History, which discovered the first nest of dinosaur eggs at Bayanzag or Shabarak Usu (muddy water), located in the territory of Bulgan soum of Umnugovi Province. This discovery served as a turning point in the paleontological history of the world, establishing the fact that dinosaurs laid and hatched from eggs. Since then, many exceptional fossils in the world were found in the Gobi Desert of Mongolia. World famous fossils from this region include: the “Two fighting dinosaurs (Velociraptor and Protoceratops)”, “Crowded infant dinosaurs - Protoceratops", “Oviraptorosaur laying its eggs”, "Giant carnivorous Tarbosaur and its baby” and “Egg fossils of many different dinosaur species, and an embryo in egg.” Moreover, tracks and traces containing overlapping footprints of different dinosaur species are being found in large numbers. [Source: Mongolian National Commission for UNESCO]
“The interbedded sediments contain fossilized remains of prehistoric plants and animals as a proof of the history of Earth. The landscape, worn by natural factors, create and form strange shapes in the cliffs, which resemble walls, gates, benches and monadnocks, making these landscapes some of the most magnificent, beautiful and unique in the world. Those landscapes interbedded and formed as cliffs or exposures can be compared to a ‘sutra,’ every page of which contains thousands of secrets of ancient life’s significance. Back in the early 1920's, foreign researchers and specialists who worked in the Mongolian Gobi Desert wondered at the beauty of its landscapes and gave the names like “Flaming Cliffs.” Some fossil sites have oases and lakes, and serve as a refuge and grazing land for wild animals, which makes this landscape even more beautiful. One fair example of this is Khermen Tsav. The ancient natural formations and structures of the Khermen Tsav fossil site vary in shapes and form an image reminiscent of castles.
“Mongolian Gobi desert fossil sites are an outstanding example of the chronological history of the earth, including the evolution of nature and wildlife, geological processes of the continental formations, Cretaceous Dinosaur Fossil Cradle Sites in the Mongolian Gobi contain dinosaur fossils, tracks and footprints which belong to the period of 70 to 99 million years ago. Among the many unique fossils found in Mongolian Gobi desert, one of the most significant discoveries was the dinosaur egg nest found at the Djadokhta formation in 1922. This discovery played a pivotal role in the science and history of palaeontology at the global scale, representing the first solid evidence that dinosaurs laid eggs. Nearly 80 genera, or 1/5 (one fifth) of the over 400 dinosaur genera known to science, are found in the Mongolian Gobi Desert.
“Local herdsmen inhabit the nearby territories and graze their animals around the sites. The initial research works and discoveries of dinosaur fossil sites and their tracks in Mongolia started in the 1920s - over 90 years ago. Throughout this time, there have been many national and international field expeditions conducted in the country. Fossil sites are isolated from settlements, located in remote and sparsely populated areas, which plays an important role in maintaining and preserving the integrity of the heritage site. In cases where fossil remains of ancient animals and plants are exposed in the sediments due to natural weathering, the events are reported immediately and surveyed accordingly.”
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons
Text Sources: Mongolia tourism and government websites, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Japan News, Yomiuri Shimbun, Compton's Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
Updated in August 2020