I have been promising a post on this summer’s fieldwork in Inner Mongolia since my return, but the almost immediate trip to Mexico, followed by ‘grant season’ has left me with a huge backlog of real work and distractions (not to mention things like Epidexipteryx) so I have simply not been able to get beyond those few early posts. As I have mentioned before this was my first proper time doing fieldwork so it was both eye opening and exciting, not to mention getting the opportunity to see a lot more of China close at hand.
My boss here in China, Xu Xing, typically takes a month in the field and this year was no exception and it was a large operation with about 20 guys at there at any one time (some cycled in and out). This was actually a combined expedition with people both from the IVPP and the Long Hao institute in Huhehaote (pronounced closer to Ho-Hot). We were also joined by Jim Clarke and his student Jonah Choiniere from George Washington University and Mike Pittman over from the RVC in London. The team was a collection of researchers, students, preparators, curators and drivers, so it was a real mixed bag, but with tons of expertise in pretty much every aspect of fieldwork (and me).
China is a big place and even though the site was ‘close’ it took two days to drive out there. I have travelled a lot in all kinds of countries around the world, but even so, being an Englishman, anything longer than a three hour drive is still a really long way for me, so this was a serious trek. There were also various formal dinners and negotiations with local officials to complete (a big deal in China) which added to the time taken (not to mention picking up a Chinese TV crew), but nothing is ever rushed in this part of the world.
Finally we got to our base camp – the town of Sai Wu Se very close to the Mongolian border Due to restrictions we had to drive out and back to the actual beds each day which was a time waster (especially given the abilities, or lack thereof, of the driver of my truck) a total of about 90 minutes each way depending on the weather and the exact location. The primary area we were working in was the (possibly) famous Bayan Mandahu, a series of Late Cretaceous beds that contain a huge most of material and have a certain amount of affinity to the (also possibly famous) Djadokhta beds in Mongolia itself which are of a similar age and similarly productive of similar fossils.
I won’t go into the details of the formation, preservation and the like, partly because I don’t know it in detail and partly because it has already been written about extensively in the past. The beds are however primarily of orange and red sandstones, preserving white bones. They date from the middle to late Campanian (that’s about million years old) and at the time this was probably a desert environment, but with significant rivers and streams allowing for animals to be buried in sands on land or in lake deposits in the water.
Both sites (Bayan Mandahu and the Djadokhta) have similar faunas containing well known dinosaurs such as Velociraptor, Tarbosaurus, Oviraptor, Saurornithoides, Pinacosaurs and the ubiquitous Protoceratops. There are also significant numbers of sauropods and hadrosaurs too, so most major dinosaur groups of the time are represented here, not to mention huge numbers of eggs and plenty of other critters (like lizards and turtles) to find. Despite the fact that the area has been well picked over in the past by numerous crews, the expanse of land and continual erosion and exposure of new areas means that there is always something to find. We did, therefore, expect this to be a productive trip and as you may have seen already the total haul was pretty good. It might have been better had we not been rained out of the filed for several days and a several more were ‘wasted’ on a couple of good looking sites that turned out to have nothing in them. (These days were of course not really wasted as such, when we next go back we’ll not go near them now we know there’s nothing there).
Days for me at least mostly consisted of prospecting alone or in pairs just looking for either good fossils or productive areas and collecting piece if they were small or marking them for later if they were big. We basically had teams of prospectors and teams of collectors who would then follow up on these points and try to excavate the fossils and put them in plaster jackets to take back to Beijing. I did manage to get my hands dirty and do some real digging and plastering on the last couple of days as we rushed to load everything up, but in general I was out scouring the countryside looking for bones and eggs, but mostly finding agamids, snakes and scorpions (to my delight if not always that of my colleagues).
Sadly, for readers at least, I can’t really talk about what we found until it is published and as I mentioned before, that is likely to be some time away. However, suffice to say we did collect a large number of eggs, including several nests and a fair number of bones and skeletons including several we are confident belong to new taxa, and also new and improved specimens of previously described ones. There is therefore much to come from this trip, and certainly work is underway on a couple of the easier-to-describe piece that might well be published early next year with a little luck and following wind.
For me this was overall an excellent experience and I learned a lot about fieldwork filling in plenty of gaps in my knowledge or getting practical experience in something that had previously been academic. I hope to have the opportunity to do plenty more in the future (though of course since this trip I have already had more time in the field in Mexico) and the opportunity both to get some hands-on experience and see some more of China and Chinese culture.