Dino hunt­ing

Mon­go­lia is huge and empty of ev­ery­thing – apart from fos­sils. With the aid of some­thing called ‘tech­nol­ogy’, TG’s off to lend a hand

Top Gear (UK) - - CONTENTS - WORDS: OL­LIE MAR­RIAGE / PHO­TOG­RA­PHY: RICHARD PAR­DON

We head to the outer reaches of Mon­go­lia to look for di­nosaur fos­sils. Juras­sic Park, eat your heart out

“THIS IS CRAZY, THIS IS CRAZY. AND OVER HERE TOO! THIS IS CRAZY, THIS IS RE­ALLY CRAZY”

It’s 9am in the Gobi desert and the sun is get­ting its boots on, ready for another hard day of grind­ing its heel into the pun­ished earth of south­ern Mon­go­lia. We’ve been out here an hour al­ready and, un­til now, found noth­ing.

Well, that’s not true. Per­son­ally I’ve found quite a lot. Quite a lot of noth­ing as it turns out. For the record, di­nosaur fos­sils are not root casts, stri­ated stones or, on one oc­ca­sion, ready-scav­enged cat­tle bones. And then sud­denly, there they are, scat­tered all over the sur­face. Clay-red, knuckle-sized Anky­losaurus bones. “A whole herd of them,” I’m told in an al­most rev­er­en­tial whis­per, about this club-tailed di­nosaur that lived 80 mil­lion years ago and is now on its come­back tour.

Next les­son: geog­ra­phy and ge­ol­ogy. Mon­go­lia is vast, and vastly rich in fos­sil de­posits. Sand­wiched be­tween Rus­sia and China, it’s prop­erly re­mote and the Gobi is the re­motest part of it. The emp­ti­est part of an al­ready empty coun­try (ap­ply Mon­go­lia’s pop­u­la­tion den­sity to the UK and we’d be home to just 467,000 peo­ple). Hard to get to and tough when you do, it’s hardly sur­pris­ing that it’s thought to con­tain the rich­est undiscovered fos­sil de­posits in the world.

Be­cause here’s another fac­tor: small pop­u­la­tion (three mil­lion) equals few palaeon­tol­o­gists. Guess how many PhD-grade palaeon­tol­o­gists, with the nec­es­sary qual­i­fi­ca­tions to lead digs, there are in Mon­go­lia? Ques­tions don’t work well in a mag­a­zine for­mat, so I’ll tell you. Three. Of whom one is re­tired, one is the largely desk-bound head of depart­ment and one is… Bad­maa.

Badamkhatan Zorigt – he of “this is crazy” – earned his PhD in Amer­ica and now has quite the land­scape at his dis­posal. So I know what you’re think­ing: clum­sily crow-bar a car brand into dino-hunt­ing by giv­ing Bad­maa some In­fini­tis so he can get about the place. Not so much.

In­finiti Pres­i­dent Roland Krueger hap­pens to be a gen­uine ad­ven­turer who has dragged a sledge solo to the South Pole. As you do. That earned him in­duc­tion into the Ex­plor­ers Club, where he found out about this ex­pe­di­tion in Mon­go­lia, the plan be­ing to use tech­nol­ogy to rev­o­lu­tionise the search for fos­sils.

Be­cause how do you find fos­sils? You dig. But where do you dig when your maps are Soviet-era 1:100,000 scale and the most de­tailed satel­lite im­agery re­solves it­self at ground level as a soli­tary pixel 15m across?

Drew Wen­de­born works for Quan­tum Spa­tial, a re­mote sens­ing com­pany that uses drones and spe­cial­ist cam­eras to plot pow­er­lines, ex­plore caves, peer through veg­e­ta­tion and so on. He’s here be­cause he once ran­domly bumped into a Brit driv­ing a black

cab around the world. Don’t ask. The links are barmy, but where they’ve led to is Drew, pho­tog­ra­pher Richard Par­don and I in a Cessna south from Ulaan­baatar, kit­ted out with sup­plies for a cou­ple of days in the desert and a space-hop­per land­ing we mostly watch out the side win­dow. Wel­come to Dalan­zadgad. Where the next ad­ven­ture sport is a drive across the desert.

It’s rain­ing, has been for two weeks, and the run­way is the last bit of tar­mac we’ll see. What fol­lows is more akin to mud wrestling than driv­ing (Richard’s ner­vous hum­ming of the Juras­sic Park theme tune when my driv­ing be­comes overly ex­u­ber­ant will be a con­tin­u­ing theme), as we head west into the Gobi, in search of a cheery palaeon­tol­o­gist.

Our “Dr Zorigt, I pre­sume?” mo­ment comes af­ter sev­eral hours of slith­er­ing in a con­voy led by an in­evitable Land Cruiser, pur­sued by three Nis­san Navara pick­ups car­ry­ing our mo­bile camp and us in a pair of In­finiti QX80s con­tain­ing drones and cam­era kit. Thirty per cent of Mon­gols are still in­volved in no­madic herd­ing of the ‘five snouts’: camel, horse, sheep, goat and cat­tle. We see more herds­men on mo­tor­bikes than horse­back, but ei­ther way it’s not a lifestyle given to per­ma­nence – or a street ad­dress. Ev­ery­thing out here is done on GPS co­or­di­nates. The QX80’s sat­nav is deeply con­fused, in­sist­ing we’re some­where off

Cal­i­for­nia’s Pa­cific coast, but our calm Mon­gol guides just keep point­ing west as we rat­tle along par­al­lel ruts through scenery that’s sur­pris­ingly… well, green.

A fa­mil­iar aroma has been per­me­at­ing the cabin and teas­ing my nos­trils. When we stop for a com­fort break I can fi­nally iden­tify it. Chives. Chives ev­ery­where, chives as far as the eye can see. And the eye can see a long way on this vast, lofty, un­in­ter­rupted plateau. They are the grass out here. If Mon­go­lia can fig­ure out a way to make chives the next kale, its herds­men will switch from live­stock to arable in a heart­beat. As it is, I can only as­sume their meat has an oniony tang.

Green even­tu­ally ta­pers to yel­low, or­ange and brown as the QX80 pounds on­wards. It’s a camel-like ma­chine: not a looker, but who wants looks when you’re cross­ing a desert? Depend­abil­ity – that’s the key out here. That’s been un­der­stood for a hun­dred years, since a US palaeon­tol­o­gist named Roy Chap­man An­drews first pi­o­neered the use of cars in this very desert. In con­tra­ven­tion to ev­ery­thing I’ve heard about camels, the QX80 de­liv­ers a vastly im­pres­sive ride qual­ity. Air-sprung on plump tyres, it heaves and sighs over the sur­face, a shag-pile topped wa­terbed dragged over pun­ish­ing gravel wash­board.

We camp that night by the side of an ex­po­sure, a quarry-like area of softer cre­ta­ceous-era rock – in this case sand­stone – that’s be­ing ex­posed by ero­sion. The re­cent rain has hauled away more lay­ers of sed­i­ment “which will have un­cov­ered new fos­sils, but also cov­ered up others,” Bad­maa tells me. That night we get a crash course in palaeon­tol­ogy and field work, gaze up at the most per­fectly de­tailed starscape I’ve ever seen (the only vis­i­ble move­ments ei­ther satel­lites or shoot­ing stars), and fi­nally head to bed be­neath it. Bad­maa and I drag our cots out of the tents to fall asleep un­der the bril­liantly pin-pricked blan­ket of night. In my case, once I’ve watched a lit­tle Juras­sic Park. Spoiler alert: and had it to­tally de­bunked.

The next morn­ing I’m given a wa­ter bot­tle, a tool bag con­tain­ing brushes and small scrap­ing de­vices (but no ham­mer – TopGear’s rep­u­ta­tion pre­cedes it) and off we head. “Don’t ex­pect to find much to start with,” Bad­maa tells me. “Plenty of ex­pe­di­tions go for a week and find noth­ing for the first five days. Your eyes have to tune in. And we’re re­ally search­ing at the wrong time of day – it’s best to look when the shad­ows are short­est and the sun is high­est.” And hottest, he man­ages not to point out. It’s fas­ci­nat­ing fol­low­ing Bad­maa

“I’m given a tool bag con­tain­ing brushes and small scrap­ing de­vices (but no ham­mer

– TG's rep­u­ta­tion pre­cedes it)”

around, be­cause when he does find the Anky­losaurus bed (“Best rule of thumb is to lick your fin­ger, touch the rock and if it’s slightly sticky, it’s likely to be a fos­sil”), it’s not his ex­cite­ment, but the amount of knowl­edge he can ex­tract from the fos­sils that blows me away. Species, likely age at death, where ex­actly these frag­ments fit on the skele­ton. What you don’t do, is dig it up – field­work is as much about col­lect­ing data as spec­i­mens. Just take a pic, geo­tag it and move on.

We’re not ac­tu­ally here to make dis­cov­er­ies. Drew’s drone is a key to un­lock­ing the mys­tery of Mon­go­lian fos­sil beds. “Ground-pen­e­tra­tion radar?” I ask con­fi­dently, while sagely scratch­ing my chin. He’s po­lite enough to sti­fle the groan. Clearly a ques­tion he’s been asked by other clue­less mup­pets. “Un­for­tu­nately not. At the mo­ment, ground-pen­e­tra­tion is la­bo­ri­ous – you have to drag the ma­chine over the ground very slowly, plus it’s ex­pen­sive and needs re­ally spe­cial­ist equip­ment, whereas what I’ve got here…” he says, pulling out a reg­u­lar DJI drone and Go­Pro, “…is sim­ple, por­ta­ble, cheap and if it goes wrong I can get spares in UB [Ulaan­baatar].”

I don’t like to point out that UB is at least a day away, or that the tech isn’t that straight­for­ward. The Go­Pro cas­ing is in­tact, but the in­ter­nals are heav­ily mod­i­fied so it sees dif­fer­ent wave­lengths of light: not just red and green, but also near-in­frared, help­ing it dis­tin­guish rock type via ther­mal imag­ing and build up a 3D map of the ground.

Launch­ing from the bon­net, it flies a fixed course 250 me­tres above the ex­po­sure “just mow­ing the lawn”, build­ing up a de­tailed pic­ture not at the 15m-per-pixel of the satel­lite, but 10cm per pixel. “We can do small ar­eas like this, get the de­tail and then ap­ply the re­sults to larger satel­lite images, to help Bad­maa pin­point whether a lo­ca­tion is worth ex­plor­ing or not. Just ad­vanc­ing the science re­ally.” Sim­ply put, but po­ten­tially rev­o­lu­tion­ary. Mon­go­lia’s maps sud­denly be­came one hun­dred times more de­tailed, the in­for­ma­tion way more spe­cific. Com­bine drone sur­vey­ing with Bad­maa’s notes about par­tic­u­lar ar­eas, ap­ply this na­tion­wide, and you’ve got much more tar­geted, re­li­able palaeon­tol­ogy.

We’re on the move. Our des­ti­na­tion is Flam­ing Cliffs, but there’s a stop en route. We scram­ble around an es­carp­ment

“Com­bine drone sur­vey­ing with Bad­maa’s notes and you’ve got much more tar­geted, re­li­able palaeon­tol­ogy”

and there, pok­ing fully out of the loose shale, jaw agape, is a Pro­to­cer­atops skull. It’s be­ing left where it is. In the UK, we get quite ex­cited to dis­cover a Civil War but­ton. Out here they shrug at the Pro­to­cer­atops: “ba­si­cally a Cre­ta­ceous sheep”.

A Ve­loci­rap­tor, though? That’s a rarer find, both be­cause its del­i­cate bone struc­ture is less likely to sur­vive 75 mil­lion years of Earth’s pro­cesses and, as soli­tary car­ni­vores, there were fewer of them in the first place. A few days ago they found one. Maybe two, ac­tu­ally, it’s hard to tell. So that’s where we’re headed, away from the es­carp­ments and ex­po­sures, back across the chive plains be­fore sud­denly tum­bling off the edge of a cliff and de­scend­ing into… Mars. Flam­ing Cliffs in­deed. The QX80 is our rover, clam­ber­ing down this treach­er­ous path, its mis­sion also one that in­volves tak­ing sam­ples. In this case the trans­port of Ve­loci­rap­tor to Mon­go­lia’s In­sti­tute of Palaeon­tol­ogy and Ge­ol­ogy in Ulaan­baatar.

But first comes ex­trac­tion. The rains have re-cov­ered the bones, so there’s lit­tle to see, but we es­tab­lish a perime­ter by painstak­ingly brush­ing and scrap­ing away ma­te­rial at the edges, slowly dig­ging down, leav­ing an is­land of still-con­cealed ju­ve­nile Ve­loci­rap­tor bones. Plas­ter ban­dages are then swad­dled around it, cre­at­ing a hard­ened shell around the pre­cious con­tents. Four hours’ work. It seems a lot of ef­fort to

go to when you think about how many more im­por­tant finds there must be not only within Mon­go­lia, but per­haps within a few feet. It’s only later I’ll ap­pre­ci­ate the magic.

That night we toast a good day’s work and, in the spirit of dino-bon­homie, the fol­low­ing morn­ing I agree to drive the QX80 while wear­ing an in­flat­able T-Rex suit. My dig­nity knows no bounds. Re­al­ity re­stores it­self when I re­alise I have to trans­port an ac­tual di­nosaur. The cast is placed on top of Drew’s soft bag for ex­tra cush­ion­ing, blan­kets are packed around it and off I set, glad­der than I’ve ever been to have a car that sponges up the rough so well. Dino-trans­porta­tion might be a niche market, but In­finiti, you’ve got it sewn up.

I last about, ooh, 50 yards be­fore re­al­is­ing I’m not cut out for this re­spon­si­bil­ity. The drive back across the desert is too tempt­ing, I just know I’ll get car­ried away and forget the pre­cious cargo un­til I see it bounc­ing off the ceil­ing as I gaily sail off another crest. With the other QX80 act­ing re­spon­si­bly, I’m free to lark about. It’s no rally car, the flat seats need more bol­ster­ing, and un­der­neath it’s lit­tle more than a re­skinned Nis­san Pa­trol. But that makes this be­he­moth ideal for this land­scape. Lantern-jawed and teak-tough, but with a hint of lux­ury to help while away the hours.

Of which there are many. Once we hit tar­mac, Ulaan­baatar is 360 miles north on sin­gle-car­riage­way roads. The scenery is a con­stant spool of green plain. One town, one vil­lage, if mem­ory serves, were the only in­ter­rup­tions. No fences, no fields, some hills as we neared UB. And I’m not aware of see­ing a sin­gle tree.

Mon­go­lia’s Cen­tre of Palaeon­tol­ogy con­tains trea­sures. Sud­denly I get it, I get Bad­maa’s cel­e­bra­tion when he found the Anky­losaurus herd, his an­tic­i­pa­tion where I only saw the faint out­line of a cou­ple of Ve­loci­rap­tor ribs. Be­cause he saw the po­ten­tial. I see it now, hav­ing safely de­liv­ered the cast to its new home to dry for a cou­ple of months be­fore ex­plo­ration, as I cast my eye around the lab, see not only the painstak­ing phys­i­cal un­cov­er­ing of the fos­sils, but un­der­stand what they tell us. They are puz­zles, and palaeon­tol­o­gists solve them.

In the base­ment, we’re shown the fos­silised re­mains of a Ve­loci­rap­tor ap­par­ently in­cu­bat­ing a clutch of eggs, the very fos­sil at the cen­tre of the idea that the di­nosaurs might ac­tu­ally have been warm-blooded. Will our cast pro­vide fur­ther ev­i­dence? If not, another one, teased gen­tly from Mon­go­lia’s Cre­ta­ceous sub­strate at some point in the fu­ture, surely will. And now, Bad­maa will have a bet­ter idea of where to look.

‘ex­ec­u­tive hon­ey­moon suite’ left a lit­tle to be de­sired in the lux­ury stakes

Wilder­ness ‘show­er­ing’ took quite some plan­ning and get­ting used to

A Ve­loci­rap­tor in­cu­bat­ing its eggs. Proof that di­nosaurs were warm-blooded?

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