Hunting dinosaurs in Mongolia

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In less than a month's time, a team of Czech scientists will leave for the Mongolian desert of Gobi to spend a month at a rich fossil location looking for the remains of dinosaurs. The team of Expedition Gobi 2006 are now making the final preparations and also bracing themselves for the rough weather conditions of the Mongolian desert. By the end of the project in 2009, they are hoping to excavate and bring back to the Czech Republic a complete dinosaur skeleton to be displayed in Prague.

I invited one of the members of the expedition, palaeontologist Martin Kostak from Prague's Charles University, into our studio and first asked him to tell us more about the expedition.

"The aim of our expedition is basic palaeontological research in an area of Mongolia which is situated just near the Chinese border in the south of Mongolia; in a valley which is called Nemegt. In translation it means 'Dragon Valley' because of the large abundance of dinosaur bones found there. This locality has been known for more than a hundred years. The first expeditions were from the United States and the supervisor of these expeditions was the famous American palaeontologist Roy Chapman Andrews who was the first to discover these large dinosaur localities in the 1920s. After this expedition the famous Russian palaeontologist Yefremov worked there and a wonderful lady, Zofia Kielan-Jaworowski from Poland found very interesting and exciting findings there of not only dinosaurs but also cretaceous mammals in this area."

Which particular species are you hoping to unearth there?

Martin Kostak
"It's quite complicated. We will be lucky if we find some parts of skeletons of any dinosaurs. We know of about 55 species of dinosaurs from this locality, including several genera. It's very interesting that there are very few predators and most herbivorous dinosaurs. It means that if we are lucky we suppose we will find some herbivorous dinosaurs, including some group of hadrosaurids maybe."

When did these dinosaurs live and what were their living conditions like?

"Generally, dinosaurs in Mongolia are found in two stratigraphic levels, in the Lower Cretaceous, it means more than a hundred million years ago, and a younger Cretaceous level, that's about a 70-75 million-year old stratigraphic level. They lived in some interesting conditions because the climate was semi-humid, it means a dry climate with seasonally strong rain during the year. We know it thanks to the geochemical analysis and sedimentological analysis from this area."

How long is the expedition expected to last?

"We expect a duration of four years. The first year - this year - we will work for one month in the desert and it will be the reconnaissance part of the expedition. In the following years we expect to work for three months in a year - we will see. It's quite complicated because of the extreme climate there."

Can you describe a typical day on location?

"I would like to describe a typical day but I'm not sure if I will describe it exactly because we have no experience with life in the desert, so we only suppose that we will be able to work only for a few hours a day. We will get up a 6 o'clock in the morning, I suppose, then have some small breakfast, then 2-3 hours of work until 10 o'clock at the most. I think between 10 am and 4 pm, there will be a gap to relax because of the horrible weather. It will be 50 degrees during the day and approximately 0 degrees Celsius at midnight. So at 6 we will start again and we will work till 8-9 o'clock. It depends also on the relief, on the conditions, the character of the rocks - we will see."

Which tools do you use, how careful do you need to be when handling the bones?

"First, it depends on the character of the rocks. If it is a compact rock, it will be quite difficult to excavate bones from the rock, so it will be necessary to use a pneumatic hammer, chisels, brushes, engravers and also some smaller hammers and needles. But if we find rocks which are friable, I think we can use only some small mechanical instruments and it will be much easier. I think it will be necessary to conserve the bones just immediately after excavating because they are dozens of millions of years old."

And how big are they?

"We can find dinosaurs from 1 metre long to 20 metres long. So it depends on what we find."

Will you be able to bring the bones back to the Czech Republic?

"Yes, it will depend on the agreement between the Mongolian side and our side. Preliminarily, we signed an agreement between the Faculty of Science, Charles University, Prague and the Mongolian National and Technical University. It is a basis for future cooperation but for excavating and export, we need an excavating licence and an export licence, and we hope we will get them after this year's expedition."

And how will you carry the bones back to the Czech Republic?

"According to Mongolian specialists, the only way is by plane so we will take the bones from Ulaanbaatar by plane to Prague."

How will the expedition be financed?

"That's an interesting question. I can say that this expedition is fully supported by the commercial or private sphere, so we have received no scientific grants. We suppose this expedition will raise a very large interest in the Czech private sphere and we will get some more money for this very expensive expedition."

Expedition Gobi, photo: CTK
Finally, who will be the members of the team and how many people will be taking part?

"This year, there are six people from the Czech Republic and six to seven people from Mongolia, including three Mongolian drivers, two Mongolian students: a specialist on sedimentology and one specialist on palaeontology, and the leader of the Mongolian part, Professor Minjin, who is a famous palaeontologist working in several Mongolian areas. Concerning the Czech part, we have one doctor, Michal Moucka. I think the Czech public know him because it was him who discovered the first dinosaur bone in the vicinity of the town of Kutna Hora. Then we have one technician, Vladimir Ruzicka; one palaeobotanist, Dr Vasilis Teodoridis; Dr Martin Mazuch, a specialist on vertebrate palaeontology, and the main organiser, Boris Hlavacek - I think the Czech public know him also from Czech Radio."