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Mongolia’s Dinosaur Discoveries

When I was a very little girl, my prized possession was an illustrated encyclopaedia of dinosaurs given to me by my grandfather. I spent days poring over it, completely mesmerised by the pictures. I’d lose hours pretending I could enter the book and the prehistoric land beautifully wrought in pen and ink. On my fanciful Jurassic adventures never did I fear being eaten by a T Rex. I was brave, I was fearless, I was 6 and firm friends with an imaginary Diplodocus I’d named Milly.

Diplodocus first discovered in 1877 by S. W. Williston.
Diplodocus First Discovered in 1877 by S. W. Williston.

Mine is not a unique story, most children have their dinosaur phase, the question is why do we never truly grow out of it? When Tim Haines documentary ‘Walking with Dinosaurs’ first aired in 1999, millions of us sat and watched in amazement, it seemed no one could talk of anything else. In 2018, ‘Jurassic World - Fallen Kingdom’ brought in a whopping $1,309,484,461 worldwide. Dinosaurs are now and have always been endlessly fascinating, because to contemplate these enigmatic creatures is to contemplate the mysteries of life itself.

This may come as a surprise to some, but Mongolia’s Gobi Desert is the largest dinosaur fossil reservoir in the world. Fossils are another part of Mongolia’s rich heritage, with some of the most famous in the world having been found in the Gobi. Over a period of 100 years, more than 80 genera of dinosaur have been discovered in Mongolia, many from the later Cretaceous period. Once an oasis for plants, animals and dinosaurs the Gobi Desert was also the site of a mass extinction. Sudden avalanche-like sand-slides both swept dinosaurs away and in many cases perfectly preserved their remains.

Velociraptor mongoliensis - Lived approximately 70-80 million years ago
Velociraptor Mongoliensis - Lived Approximately 70-80 Million Years Ago

On the 11th of August 1923, the very first Velociraptor fossils were discovered by Peter kaisan. A complete but crushed skull, and one toe claw were found at a dig site in the Gobi. Today, thanks to the magic of Hollywood, the Velociraptor mongoliensis, which loosely translates as (speedy thief) is thought of as smart, vicious, and able to turn door knobs! Spielberg’s Hollywoodized version of the Velociraptor has no basis in truth. The common consensus amongst scientists is that the velociraptor had feathers. In 2007, palaeontologists discovered quill knobs (areas where the flight-related feathers of birds are rooted to the bone) on a well-preserved Velociraptor forearm from Mongolia. Though it was feathered the raptor was flightless, and it is thought its feathers were used for mating displays only. Velociraptors had large skulls that housed up to 15 razor sharp serrated teeth on both the upper and lower jaw, and its sickle shaped talons tore flesh to the bone in seconds.

Velociraptor mongoliensis, forever locked in mortal combat with a Protoceratops
Velociraptor Mongoliensis - Forever Locked in Mortal Combat with a Protoceratops

One of the most famous raptor fossils ever to be unearthed was found embedded in the white sandstone cliffs of the southern Gobi Desert by a Polish Mongolian team in 1971. The team discovered what became known as the ‘Fighting Dinosaurs’ specimen. An amazing find, as at the time of death a Velociraptor was locked in a death grip with a Protoceratops. The gruesome tableau shows the Protoceratops taking a chunk out of the raptors arm, while the raptor plunges its switchblade foot claws into the neck of the Protoceratops. The fact that this pair are mid fight indicates they were fossilised rapidly, consistent with a global flood or massive landslide.

Zanabazar junior (formerly Saurornithoides Lived 65-70 million years ago
Zanabazar Junior (Formerly Saurornithoides) Lived 65-70 Million Years Ago

In 1974, the skull, vertebrae, and right hindlimb of what was then thought to be a species of Saurornithoides were excavated by Dr Rinchen Barsbold in the Gobi’s Nemegt Formation. However, in 2009 after a review the fossils were proven to be a separate genus. The fossils were reclassified and renamed Zanabazar, after the first Bogd Gegeen, or supreme spiritual authority of the Gelugpa lineage of Tibetan Buddhism in Outer Mongolia. The find has been of great use in the dinosaur to bird transition debate, as the skull was found with a well-preserved braincase. An endocranial cast was made, studies of which have allowed a greater understanding of the structure of troodontid brains and their similarities to the Archaeopteryx, believed to be the first bird.

Tarbosaurus (alarming lizard) skeleton
Tarbosaurus (Alarming Lizard) Skeleton

Tarbosaurus, which translates as ‘alarming lizard’ is a genus of tyrannosaurid theropod that flourished in Asia around 70 million years ago. First discovered in 1964, this intimidating creature is cousin to the most iconic of dinosaurs the T-Rex. The Tyrannosaurus was king in North America, but the Tarbosaurus or T-Bataar was undoubtedly king of the late Cretaceous period in Mongolia. When this colossal dinosaur roamed the earth, it measured 40ft long and weighed a titanic 5 tons. This bad boy came equipped with around sixty knife edged teeth, and had a unique locking mechanism in its lower jaw for maximum kill efficiency.

Dinosaur egg with hatchling remains
Dinosaur Egg with Hatchling Remains

Today is a golden age for dinosaur discoveries, each one throwing up new questions for scientists to quarrel over. However, Mongolia was the place that answered a long-standing question amongst scientists and palaeontologists. For years there was debate over whether dinosaurs gave birth to live young or laid eggs. In 1920, Mongolia offered up the answer. Bayanzag, located 115km northwest of capital city Dalanzadgad, is where the very first dinosaur eggs were found by scientist Roy Chapman Andrews, ending the great debate once and for all.

Fossilised dinosaur egg clutch
Fossilised Dinosaur Egg Clutch

Mongolia and the Gobi Desert are places of many natural wonders, their incredibly dense fossil sites are just some of them. We have not even touched the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Mongolia and dinosaur finds, so be sure to come back soon for more Trouvailles Talks dinosaur discovery stories.

For more information on conservation projects in Mongolia or to book one of our Riding, Trekking, and Wildlife Tours, please contact 020 3877 0670.