Hunting for Dinosaur Bones in the Digital Age

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Researchers at the Mongolia Institute of Paleontology examining a fossil from the Gobi. KESHIA NAURANA BADALGE

I’d never seen large animals look so small, or move with such a cinematic stillness, as I did in the Gobi. A dozen of us arrived at Gurvan Saikan airport, in the south of the Gobi Desert in Mongolia, just in time for the break of dawn. As we left the airport and traveled the hour-long drive through the great Mongolian steppe to our campsite, specs of motion in the distance slowly transformed into a caravan of camels or a flock of sheep following each other towards a knoll.

I have traveled here with members of the Explorer’s Club and researchers from the Mongolian Institute of Paleontology and Geology on a mission: to look for evidence of some of the largest animals to roam the Earth. I couldn’t help but think that maybe, in the Gobi, even dinosaurs wouldn’t seem so big.

The Gobi in fact encompasses both desert and steppe, both barren sand and lush greenlands. It’s the world’s largest unfenced rangeland, bounded only by natural features like the Altai mountains in the north, and the Tibetan plateau to the south. Here, native two-humped Bactrian camels, wearing throws of shaggy hair, share space with scorpions, hawks, snow leopards, and Gobi bears. It’s also littered with the remains of prehistoric creatures that, millions of years ago, swarmed the land.

Bones found by drones.

Our path to the south of the Gobi retraced the route of Roy Chapman Andrews, an unorthodox American explorer who led a series of expeditions here nearly a century ago. With a team of scientists, he took a fleet of open-topped Dodges—the first automobiles seen in the region—and scoured sand and rock in search of fossilized bounty in the 1920s. They called him a fool at that time, for the only proven way to get around the Gobi was on light-footed camels—and the Dodges’ feeble totter did not cut an impressive image compared to the humped animals’ elegance. Andrews was not exactly known for his scientific finesse either: while his paleontological counterparts dusted bones off with feathers, he could be found hacking away at the same earth with rock, hammer, and gusto.

It didn’t matter, in the end, whether Andrews looked like a paleontologist or not. In 1922, here in the Gobi, he came upon the richest dinosaur boneyards in the world. His landmark discovery of a nest of fossilized dinosaur eggs in the Flaming Cliffs here changed paleontology forever by proving dinosaurs were reptilian, and opened up Mongolia for future investigations as well as in our collective imagination. Andrews later became the director of the American Museum of Natural History in New York, and many speculate Indiana Jones was modelled after him.

In our search for fossils this summer, we were aided by a breakthrough technology modern to our times: satellites and drones. Prior to our departure, satellite imagery narrowed our search by scanning large swathes of land for sandstone, mudstone, and shale deposited during the Cretaceous period, between 145 and 65 million years ago, when dinosaurs are believed to have existed here.

A Mongolian researcher leads the group down the Flaming Cliffs, the same region where Roy Chapman Andrews first found a nest of dinosaur eggs. KESHIA NAURANA BADALGE

After these hotspots were identified, Scott Nowicki, the lead scientist at Florida-based geospatial data firm Quantum Spatial, led the second step of the search using modified DJI Phantom quadcopter drones. Nowicki had previously worked with NASA to use similar drones to study rock surfaces on several explorations to Mars. Here in the Gobi, Nowicki flew drones with thermal and spectral cameras over hundreds of square miles to create high-resolution, three-dimensional maps accurate down to the inch. The process identified 250 likely new locations to find fossils.

Leading the expedition was Badamkhatan Zorigt—or “Badmaa” for short—a cherubic paleontologist from Mongolia. Badmaa received his doctorate at the University of Montana under the training of Jack Horner (the technical advisor for all the Jurassic park films), and now heads the division of vertebrate paleontology at the Mongolian Institute of Paleontology and Geology. He told us how difficult it would have been to execute effective fossil excavations without those high-res maps. “We just wouldn’t have the resources to go out to look,” he said, “It is very time-consuming, as you will see.”

Scouting by Eye in the Flaming Cliffs

After a sleepless night of travel and a quick breakfast of tsuivan (a traditional stew of stir-fried noodles and meat and suutei tsai (milk tea), I took the wheel of an Infiniti SUV. Other members of the team piled into what was certainly an upgrade from Andrews’ 1920s Dodge.

Our destination: the Flaming Cliffs, a sprawling basin of pink sand and bleached rock that earned its name from how its rocks glow like fire in the setting sun. “Fossils are everywhere here,” Badmaa assured us, “you just have to learn how to look.”

The author holding a bone found in the Ömnögovi province. KESHIA NAURANA BADALGE

Drones equipped with advanced imaging equipment can find a fossil beneath the earth, but they can’t do the painstaking work of picking out bone from the rock. The ravines and gorges which were, in Andrews’ words, “studded with bones,” are now peppered by red herrings: wind-strewn rock of similar size and color, and the bones of modern species such as cows, camel, and sheep. The best places to look for fossils, I learned from Badmaa, were at the sides of rock outcrops, where erosion would have uncovered fossils and then left them exposed.

On the surface of rocky slope awash with pebbles, Badmaa found the skull of a Protoceratops—an Upper Cretaceous-period herbivore, which as a mature adult reached about six feet (1.8 meters) long and 400 lbs (180 kg)—skull awkwardly jutting out. Badmaa predicted that the dinosaur’s body sits somewhere inside the slope. It would take a long time to fully excavate the slope and uncover the body, so the team from Mongolia will have to return again later in the year.

In just 20 days, the team of paleontologists, geologists, and Explorer Club members was able to survey the same amount of land it took Andrews multiple years to cover. Among the hundreds of fossils found were the hind leg of an ostrich-type dinosaur from 65 million years ago, a 70-million-year old intact turtle, and the first Velociraptor ancestor uncovered in the Öösh mountain range. The search also yielded a primitive horned dinosaur never before seen in the Ömnögovi province of the Gobi, a rare Theropod dinosaur egg, and a velociraptor rib cage.

Then there were the discoveries of the vertebrae, ribs, skull, and tail fragments of a Tarbosaurusthe Mongolian cousin of the T. rexas well as the longest mature Tarbosaurus tooth ever found. Chinzorig Tsogtbaatar, a researcher with the Institute of Paleontology and Geology in Mongolia, said that the tooth might have belonged to “possibly the largest carnivorous dinosaur found in the southern region of Mongolia.”

Base camp in the Gobi desert. KESHIA NAURANA BADALGE

The Future of Dinosaur Fossil Hunting

In 2011, on NPR’s program Talk of The Nation, three members of the National Geographic Society grappled with this question: “What do explorers do in the 21st century?”

At a time when Google Maps can call up a picture of a remote village, and satellites can zoom in on contours of the seafloor 12,000 ft (3,650 meters) under the ocean’s surface, exploration has lost some of its allure.

Robert Ballard, explorer-in-residence at the National Geographic Society and a guest on the NPR program, argued that digital exploration tools are a cause for celebration, not dismay. Explorers in the past had the propensity to leave a trail of damage in their wake. More “remote” exploration, through drones and satellites, provide a less intrusive alternative. This certainly applies to paleontological exploration in Mongolia. The land here is fragile; one wrong step or chisel hack could cause a million-year-old fossil to crumble to dust. The satellite and drone maps are able to delineate areas that are safe for walking, as well as areas that require an extra-cautious approach.

We may soon even be able to advance paleontology from our bedrooms. After the data from the three-dimensional maps is processed, the Mongolia team plans to open them up to the public for “virtual scouring.” Because the maps are so detailed, the researchers think that people anywhere in the world could virtually walk through the land and look for fossils on their screens. Horner says he already searches for fossils on his computer via drone photos. The combination of thermal and spectral cameras could add a new dimension of specificity. This would open up a new era for citizen science and allow for more people, who do not have the means or access to fossil hotspots, to contribute to paleontology. Call this the new era of virtual paleontology.