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Digging for Dinos In The Land Of Genghis Khan

Can a first-time dinosaur hunter make it through a dig in Mongolia?

By Ann Marie Gardner
Aug 16, 2007 5:00 AMNov 12, 2019 4:29 AM


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I’m standing at the baggage carousel in Genghis Khan airport in Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia, accompanied by paleontologist Jack Horner and his team of dinosaur hunters, preparing for an expedition out into the badlands and way back into time. We collect our gear (sleeping bags, tent, multiple layers of clothing) and drive to the Genghis Khan Hotel for one night’s sleep and a half day of sightseeing before the three-day drive to the Gobi Desert. There we will dig for two weeks in the capricious climate (hot sun, wind, snow, rain) and sleep in tents with no showers or bathrooms, looking for Psittacosaurus—a parrotlike dinosaur that was abundant in the area some 100 million years ago.

Horner, who comes to Mongolia every year to excavate, is focusing on Psittacosaurus this time because he needs to collect a lot of bones from the same species of dinosaur. Then he can run statistical studies on how the dinosaurs grew and changed as they aged. Mongolia was home to flocks of probably thousands of them, which makes Psittacosaurus perfect for this experiment. As Horner says, “I figured I could get more Psittacosaurus bones in the shortest period of time than any other dinosaur.”

Paleontologists have been descending on Mongolia—politics permitting—since Roy Chapman Andrews’s legendary expeditions in the 1920s, and they still come in droves every summer. (The summer months are the only time when conditions are bearable to dig; the rest of the year it is too snowy or cold.) At the Genghis Khan Hotel’s breakfast buffet that first morning, Horner runs into colleagues from the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Alberta, Canada, and the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.

Also known as the "parrot lizard," Psittacosaurus stood about two feet tall and was presumably a common sight in Mongolia during the Early Cretaceous. | Image courtesy of Craig Chesek © American Museum of Natural History

But where there are paleontologists, there are also smugglers, and Mongolia’s rich treasure of Cretaceous Period (145 million to 65 million years ago) dinosaur fossils is under siege. Smugglers have even gotten so bold that they’ve taken specimens right off the dig sites while paleontologists break for lunch. Then they smuggle the fossils across the border by train to Russia and China and auction them off to collectors in countries like Japan and Germany.

Meanwhile, Mongolia’s political instabilities since the overthrow of a Communist regime in favor of a nominally democratic one in 1992 have cost the dinosaurs a proper official home. The Communist government was about to build a new paleontology museum, but the project died along with the regime and its budget. Now Mongolia doesn’t have proper facilities to keep up with the enormous volume of fossils discovered here. Most of the bones lie in overcrowded storerooms of the Mongolian University of Science and Technology. “Dinosaurs are the one thing to see when you come to Mongolia,” Horner says. “The museum of Mongolia should be the best thing here.”

Instead, the interior of the Natural History Museum is a run-down mess. A dilapidated stairwell leads up to a creaking hallway with cracked and stained walls and two disappointing dinosaur rooms. One is home to the most famous and important set of dinosaur skeletons in the world, the perfectly preserved remains of a vicious velociraptor and a plant-eating protoceratops who apparently died in the middle of a fight. Scientists think a storm collapsed a sand dune and smothered the two creatures suddenly. The velociraptor has a broken right arm and is gripping the head of the protoceratops while jamming his leg into the protoceratops’s ribs. It is unbelievable to see a skeleton so lifelike. As I stand there looking at the giants, I imagine what else is out there, buried or surfacing among the sandy soil and dry rocks of the cold and windy Gobi Desert.

The Journey There

We are a team of 20, including photographer Shelly Heilweil (who is also Horner’s girlfriend), three Montana State University (MSU) graduate students, five Mongolian graduate students, a cook, and three drivers (who sub as mechanics). Also joining the party are two of Mongolia’s top scientists—Bolortsetseg Minjin, Bolor for short, the country’s leading paleontologist, and her father, Bodonguud Chuluun Minjin, Mongolia’s most respected geologist. In fact, our whole expedition is a joint effort of the Minjins and the funder, Nathan Myhrvold. They are all trying to encourage the study of paleontology in Mongolia. “There’s plenty of dinosaurs here and a new generation of young paleontologists that need our support,” Myhrvold says. Horner agrees. “One of my goals is to encourage young paleontologists here to run their own expeditions.”

Our convoy rolls along in three Russian vans and an army vehicle carrying enough water, food, and gasoline for three weeks, along with paleontology tools and other equipment. Driving for 15 hours down a bumpy Mongolian road with a pack of paleontologists is a rattling experience, both physically and intellectually. The conversation jumps from creationism to Horner’s recent celebration of Darwin’s birthday (he served finch fries and mock lizards—chicken wings dyed green) to last year’s harrowing expedition (a sandstorm blew down the tents and flattened the kitchen, and that was before the snow moved in). Used to working in extreme conditions, including intense heat, piercing sunlight, rattlesnakes, and no bathrooms, this is the proverbial tough crowd. They don’t flinch at the idea that we will not shower for weeks or that we are 20 people crammed into three vehicles for days until we reach the Gobi Desert. They talk about the last journalist who went on a dig with them. She didn’t last a day.

Horner is the Tom Sawyer of paleontology: He gets people excited about dinosaurs, and then he recruits them to come and work (free!) at his digs. His enthusiasm for paleontology is contagious. He is a professor and curator of paleontology at the MSU Museum of the Rockies and an author, he was a technical adviser on the three Jurassic Park movies, and he won a MacArthur genius award for his work on dinosaur behavior. George Lucas comes to Montana every year. Producers Frank and Kathy Marshall come regularly. (They recently donated a movie-set trailer/bathroom to one of the dig sites.) Dorothy Hamill comes. (“She works hard,” Horner says.) Amy Tan comes with her dogs and cleaning supplies and once spent hours cleaning the bathroom trailer before she would use it. Peter Fonda comes. Herschel Walker and Naomi Judd keep threatening to come.

Each summer, Horner runs seven expeditions at a time around eastern Montana, but he’s most passionate about what he can do in Mongolia. “My purpose is to excavate for Mongolia and get them going,” he says.

We are going to the Gobi badlands, one of the most uninhabitable parts of Mongolia. Our three-day drive goes surprisingly quickly, and we all learn a lot on the ride. Well . . . I learn a lot on the ride. Mongolia has one of the best preserved Mesozoic ecosystems, and the geology here—primarily the shifting sands of the Gobi Desert—means you can find fossils in almost exactly the same position that they were buried in.

We endlessly discuss why Mongolian roads are so bad and break up the hours in the van with ritual junk-food breaks. All the paleos in our van are junk-food addicts; they live on Fanta soda, Pringles, dinosaur fruit snacks, and gummy worms. Horner sits by the window wearing his signature cowboy hat, with a long red gummy worm hanging from his mouth. Beyond the worm and out the window, the land seems to extend forever, sort of like looking at the ocean, except it’s land.

We pass herds upon herds of horses. The horses are small and compact and fast as hell. The Mongols riding them in hats and long coats belted at the waist are their human equivalent: small and compact and strong as hell. The gers (traditional tents that Mongolian nomads live in) look like round white tepees. Each ger differs only in the color of its wooden front door. The wealthiest ger owners have satellite dishes outside. Some even have small windmills to generate power. Even though a ger is the Mongolian equivalent of a double-wide, they really seem to fit into the landscape. Horner looks out the window at the simple beauty of the land and says, “We Americans have complicated the art of living.”

On the drive, the landscape starts out green and lush, filled with herds of goats, sheep, and fuzzy-tailed yaks and cattle. But as we get closer to the Gobi, the landscape changes. There are more rocky outcrops and no more roads or power lines. We see Bactrian camels, and when we stop to stretch our legs, we smell the wild onions that grow in the bush.

Arriving at Base Camp

As we near the small area known as Oosh, our destination, the vans circle and then stop on a ridge that looks like every other ridge we have passed in the past few hours. But we are here. The Mongolians jump out of the vans and shout, “Yo Ya!”—Let’s go!

I peel myself out of the van, stiff and apprehensive. What am I doing here? I’m as far away from anywhere as I’ve ever been, I know nothing about dinosaurs, and if they left me here, I would never find my way back, much less survive. It’s a weird feeling.

Setting up base camp is our first job. We construct the first ger (our food tent) and secure our individual tents so they can survive any sandstorm. One of the geologists, Jonathan Geisler, who’s married to Bolor, helps me with mine. It is windy and hot in the sun. The Mongolian students unload large plastic tubs filled with paleontology tools and casting materials used to preserve dinosaur bones. The drivers and the students then begin to construct the ger that will be our mess tent, kitchen, and the heart and soul of our camp. The door to the ger always faces southeast because the winds blow from the northeast.

We eat a quick lunch of cheese sandwiches, hiding from the sun in the shade of the army trucks and talking about Jurassic Park. Horner says: “Like didn’t you notice there were all these plant-eating dinosaurs, and all they were trying to eat were people? And dinosaurs don’t go anywhere near the speed they go in the movie.” He admits that Spielberg and company had to make things somewhat unrealistic or the movie would have been a documentary. And then: “OK. Enough eatin’. I want to go find myself a skeleton.”

The Hunt Begins

Horner has already given us a full profile of Psittacosaurus, the dinosaur whose apt name means “parrot lizard.” It was a plant eater that walked on two legs and was about four feet long with a curved beak and odd horns sticking out from the middle of its cheeks. Imagine a dinosaur the size of a golden retriever but with a head that looks like an oversize parrot’s. In its day, Psittacosaurus was far from exotic, which of course is exactly the point of this expedition. “I like dinosaurs that I can get lots of so I can do statistical studies of growth and so on,” Horner explains.

He walks to the first outcrop, bends over, and picks up a handful of dinosaur femurs and tibiae. Jonathan walks to another outcrop and finds a fossil sticking out of the rock. Wow. This is easy, I think. Horner splits us all into teams before he heads out with Ron Loge, a doctor from Montana who came to donate medical equipment to the Mongolians as well as to help out on the dig. I’m teamed up with the MSU grad students Liz Freedman, Holly Woodward, and crew chief Nels Peterson. We are sent to a site half a mile across the scrubby desert from camp where they excavated five dinosaurs last year. This time of year the desert flowers are in bloom, and everyone’s allergies have kicked in. So with streaming eyes and noses and the whipping wind and blinding sun, we walk with our heads down looking for dinosaur bones.

Everything looks like a rock to me. I am miserable, can’t breathe or see, and feel useless when I literally bump into Ron as we both walk around the same hill from opposite directions. He carries a ziplock bag with loads of red and purple bones, and he is beaming with excitement. “Ron found bones,” I shout to the group. He agrees to share his dinosaur-hunting technique with me, as well as to give me some allergy pills.

He shows me where to search: in the wash of rocks at the bottom of a hill. The trick is to scan closely for small purple pieces that look a little different from the majority of rocks around them. Those are likely to be bones. Then, Ron explains, follow the wash up the hill and see if there are more bones. If there are fewer than three bones, it’s an isolate—a scattered remain, not of much use. Horner’s rule is, three or more associated bones constitute a skeleton.

Almost as soon as Ron explains his methods, I see a large purple bone. “Is this one?” I ask Ron. He whistles. “You found a hip bone.” My first dinosaur bone, and it’s a good one. We follow the wash up the hill, and there are some more bones farther up the hill. It qualifies as a skeleton! We mark the spot with an orange ribbon. Horner will mark it later with the Global Positioning System and tell us if it’s worth excavating.

Finding a bone changes everything. My nose stops running, my allergies disappear, the wind is suddenly cool, the sun not so blistering. Now my search takes on the obsession of all the paleos around me. I understand why they seem so oblivious to the conditions—dinosaur bones are all-consuming. We find bone after bone after bone. After a while, it’s like walking over cigarette butts on the streets of New York; smallish, purply dinosaur bones are everywhere. We literally trip over dinosaur bones wherever we walk.

It’s so exciting that everyone stays out hunting for bones the first night until well after 7, when the sun starts to go down. This experience today really makes me understand scientists better. They are driven every day by curiosity and the thrill of discovery, not by fame or glory. After all, where is the glory in scuffling around the Gobi Desert in dirty clothes, blowing your nose and clutching pieces of rock?

Snapping the Big Picture

We spend several days at the spot where Horner's team dug up five Psittacosaurus skeletons last year. I imagined we’d find the dinosaur skeletons just sitting there in perfect position, but it’s not like that at all. You rarely find one perfectly preserved, and excavation is painstaking work.

Overall, though, it is pleasant to sit on a hill with a chisel and paintbrush, focusing on the rock in front of you, then brushing to see if there is a bone, then chipping off more rock and brushing and chipping and brushing and chipping. The work is intensely meditative—very Chop Wood, Carry Water. We end up disassembling an entire 10-foot hill with basically a screwdriver and a dental pick, and guess what? There are no dinosaurs in this hill.

We move to another site, a dried lake bed, and start peeling shale off the edge of a cliff. Horner comes by and yells at everyone: “You’re doing it like commercial guys, not scientists. We’re scientists! The idea is to get a picture of the ecology and not just dig off the edge.” Horner wants us to look for anything that might have flown and fallen into the lake, especially feathers. Chinese researchers found a feathered dinosaur near here last year. As Jonathan puts it, “If the Psittacosaurus had feathers, we’d have a real party!”

Horner explains the importance of matching the bones and the feathers. “We’re trying to get a snapshot in time of the history of the planet and piece together all the parts,” he says. “It could provide information for understanding our own ecology and fragility. Birds are dinosaurs, and therefore they’d be good to find. Insects and fish are cool too. Those give us a snapshot in time from 75 million years ago.”

The bones we find today are hollow, like those of a chicken. “The closest ancestors to birds are the nonavian dinosaurs,” Horner says. “They had hollow bones, and we don’t know why. Maybe they could run faster.” Liz comments, “If you’re going to be that big and fly, it’s a good thing to be hollow.”

By the last day, Horner’s hair is flying straight up in the sky, and he says, “I’m going for the Einstein look today.” He watches a Shakira video on his iPod while we drive to another Psittacosaurus site, near the Flaming Cliffs that glow orange in the sunlight. Peddlers have been known to sell dinosaur bones to tourists at the top of the cliffs. “There is no control here,” Horner says, “and no regulation for digging here. The Chinese come in, dig, and take the stuff out on the train.”

No one finds any dinosaurs today except Ron, who single-handedly uncovers tons: ribs, legs, other bones, and a full Psittacosaurus skeleton in a rock. He is on a high, and everyone is excited for him. Horner even asks Ron if he would consider changing careers.

But now we have to jacket the dinosaurs, which makes you realize that finding the dinosaurs is the easy part. Jacketing means you wrap the skeleton for safe transport. Field jacketing involves making a cast out of plaster and burlap (though in our case, we use toilet paper) around the fossil. It’s like making a cast for a broken arm. To survive Mongolia’s bumpy roads, the jackets have to be really strong. We paint the skeleton with a solution called Vinac, which acts as an adhesive and also stabilizes and strengthens the fossil from the inside out. Then we mix water and cement in ziplock bags, soak the toilet paper in the plaster, and wrap the fossil.

The first fossil crumbles as we try to cast it. Horner radios us and asks if we are finished yet. He also tells us we have to do it faster. Talk about stress. In the middle of this, he radios to say that a lone woman on a horse has been riding around our camp and scoping out our sites. Everyone goes into a spin, and Horner rushes us even more. I find out why: Last year a group of grave robbers came and stole some jacketed fossils right off this exact hill we were digging.

Horner doesn’t want to leave any fossils lying around unguarded in case the interloper is a robber and smuggler. We finally cast and flip a Psittacosaurus successfully, and I get to name it: “Fanta­saurus,” after all the Fanta the paleos have drunk this week. As we race back to camp to pack up and leave, we stumble across more dinosaur bones in places we have walked over a hundred times this week.

As I gaze out over the landscape, I can easily imagine how the dinosaurs lived here 80 million years ago. “There is a continuity of life on this spot,” Horner says. “When you come here, people in cities don’t have a sense of how small we are in the big evolutional picture. You’d never think there was such vibrant life on this vast, empty landscape.”

By the end of the expedition, we had discovered 67 Psittacosaurus skeletons. Horner calls our site Psittaco City. “If you had 67 people living together in Mongolia, it would be a city!”

Was our search worthwhile? Months after the Mongolia expedition, Horner calls me from his office back at the Museum of the Rockies: “It was a great success. We found an awful lot of stuff, and I’ll publish the full results soon.” (The specimens are currently being processed in Mongolia.) Horner is already preparing for his next dinosaur quest: “We’re going to dig up T. rexes next summer, a few more triceratops skeletons, a duck-billed dinosaur, and some eggs. Oh, and guess what?” he continues. “My ger arrived today. I was going to build it and put in my backyard, but we’re going to have it as the kitchen on the dig next summer. You’re coming, right?”

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