From prairie to Gobi in search of dinosaurs

Presenting our first guest blog post from paleontologist Victoria Arbour, an NSERC Postdoctoral Fellow in the Evans Lab at the Royal Ontario Museum and University of Toronto. 

Sunrise at Three Camel Lodge, Mongolia. Credit: Victoria Arbour.

I’ve been interested in the palaeobiology and palaeobiogeography of Mongolian dinosaurs for more than ten years, since my graduate school days at the University of Alberta. Much of my research has focused on the ankylosaurid dinosaurs, the weird, spiky, armoured dinosaurs with tail clubs. Ankylosaurid fossils are always rare, but two of the best places to find good specimens of this unusual group of dinosaurs are Alberta and, you guessed it, Mongolia. The biodiversity and relationships of Albertan and Mongolian ankylosaurids were a major part of my doctoral research, and Mongolian dinosaurs continue to be an important part of my research program.

illustration of a Pinacosaurus with orange armor spikes, waving its tail club
Pinacosaurus is a Mongolian ankylosaur, a large, armored, plant-eating dinosaur who lived in the Gobi region 80 million years ago.

I am very fortunate to have had the chance to first visit Mongolia as a Masters student way back in 2007, as part of the Nomadic Expeditions Dinosaurs of the Gobi expedition. Over the course of a little over two weeks, I had a whirlwind tour of Mongolian palaeontology. My visit to Mongolia began with a visit to the museum and collections in Ulaanbaatar, where many superstar dinosaur specimens reside: Big Mama the nesting oviraptorosaur, the great arms of the at-the-time still-enigmatic Deinocheirus, the incredible Fighting Dinosaurs locked forever in deadly combat, and, of course, beautiful ankylosaurs like the skull of Tsagantegia, an incredible skeleton with its armour still in place, and a gigantic tail club.

Bactrian camels were a relatively common sight during our travels. Credit: Victoria Arbour.

Canada is pretty empty in the middle, and the seemingly neverending prairies of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba are like a western doppelganger to the great steppes south of Ulaanbaatar. But instead of grain terminals and bright yellow canola and cows, there are herds of goats, camels, and sturdy little horses, bright white gers, and green grass.

The Dinosaurs of the Gobi expedition team nears completion on the nesting Nemegtomaia excavation. Credit: Victoria Arbour.

Eventually the steppe dried out and we were in the Gobi Desert proper. Here we mostly prospected for dinosaurs in the Nemegt Basin, where two rock formations are found – the Nemegt Formation and the Baruungoyot Formation, both of which record time running up to the end of the Age of Dinosaurs. My good friend and colleague Federico Fanti of the Universita di Bologna in Italy made an amazing discovery here during this expedition: an oviraptorosaur sitting on its nest of eggs! This beautiful dinosaur, called Nemegtomaia (“Nemegt mother”), was described in a paper published in 2012, which is free to read and download at PLOS ONE. This specimen was clearly the highlight of the expedition, but we also discovered many excellent smaller fossils of hadrosaurs, theropods, ankylosaurs, lizards, and mammals along the way. We even got to visit a bonebed of juvenile ankylosaurs (Pinacosaurus!) and collect a few new specimens!

Expedition team leader Phil Currie of the University of Alberta points out the remains of a poached Tarbosaurus skull. Credit: Victoria Arbour.

Mongolia is a special place and there are still so many questions to answer about its dinosaurs. My 2007 visit was the first time I had been exposed to the reality of fossil poaching, and it broke my heart to see the number of specimens that were, in all likelihood, ruined by illegal collecting. That’s why I’ve been so happy to support, in a small way, the work of the ISMD, and encourage others to do the same. Mongolians deserve to know about their amazing natural heritage, and Mongolia deserves to have its own cadre of home-grown palaeontologists.


Victoria Arbour is an NSERC Postdoctoral Fellow at the Royal Ontario Museum studying dinosaur biogeography and the evolution of animal weapons. She blogs about dinosaurs and paleontology at pseudoplocephalus.com.

Victoria and a Gobi ankylosaur, a beautiful nearly complete skeleton only lacking a head (here filled in by Saichania chulsanensis, also an excellent Gobi ankylosaur), at the Mongolian Natural History Museum. Credit: Victoria Arbour

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