Steven Ballantyne (UK)
The Scientific Exploration Society is a well-established, UK-based charity that undertakes scientific research and community aid work in remote parts of the world. As an expedition leader for the Society, it proved to be an exciting challenge for me to lead a month-long expedition in 2006 across the infamous Gobi Desert in Mongolia in search of dinosaur fossils. Professor Altangerel Perle, the renowned palaeontologist from The National University of Ulaanbataar, headed the scientific team. (Professor Perle has no less than six dinosaurs named after him.) The team totalled 20 in number and included Mongolian palaeontology students, botanists and zoologists, and also team members from the UK, Australia, Tasmania and Greece, all with a deep-seated interest in science.
As an introduction to then non-palaeontologist members of the team, we spent our first day surveying and working at the Flaming Cliffs. This is an historic site, made famous in the 1920s by the great explorer and palaeontologist, Roy Chapman Andrews. Here, we found tiny fossil fragments of the dinosaur Protoceratops andrewsi. This was achieved by gently and methodically brushing the surface sand – a job we would become expert at over the forthcoming weeks.
Jinst was the location of the first of our two significant finds. This was a very well-preserved turtle shell, a stark reminder to all that this seasonally hot and dusty land was once an ocean. The fossil included the complete upper and lower body shell and, excitingly, the small tail bone that is often missing from such fossils.
Our second discovery consisted of two, almost complete Oviraptor skulls found within yards of each other. Perle informed the team that, at this site in 1976, he had excavated two nests of Oviraptor eggs and a flesh-eating dinosaur weighing around 40ks that had the odd characteristic of not having teeth. Unfortunately, we were not able to observe the detail of the specimens we had found as, for the most part, they were still encrusted in red earth. Subsequently, there was much painstaking cleaning back in Ulaanbataar, before the skulls could be fully identified.
It had been one of the original aims of the expedition to find a nest of eggs, a task I can only liken to finding a needle in a haystack. In his long career searching the Gobi Desert, Perle has only ever found three nests of eggs. However, at around 8pm on 4 July 2006, in the cooling gravel and mudstone formations that make up the area called Erdene Bulgiin Yagaan Shiree, we struck gold or, as I should say, we found eggs. Twelve almost complete eggs – the first ever found in the area.
Dating from around 70Ma, they are about the size of duck eggs and it took a number of hours of careful excavation to remove them from the ground for further analysis. Ultimately, it is hoped that a fossilised piece of embryo may be found in one of the eggs to help solve the fascinating question, ‘Which dinosaur was this?’