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Of Once and Future Fossils

by Ellen S. Wilson

Near the end of his scientific adventure tale, Michael Novacek pauses to be a bit philosophical:

People, especially paleontologists, can accept extinction, renewal, diversification, and yet more extinction as intrinsic to our evolutionary legacy. We know that serpentine mosasaurs, segmented pill-buglike trilobites, winged pterosaurs, long-necked sauropods, and even bigger cockroaches than encountered in some bad hotel rooms in Hawaii are no longer around. If there is something that the fossil record teaches us that might be somehow attached to our "higher" sense of our place in the universe, it is that life in all its wondrous forms does not endure.

It is a thought that would give any reader pause. After following Novacek and his crew through years of frustration and triumph in the inhospitable Gobi Desert, it is meaningful to stop and consider: this fossil record that is being carefully elucidated applies to us as well.

Michael Novacek is senior vice president and provost of Science, as well as curator of Vertebrate Paleontology, at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. His expeditions to Mongolia began in the summer of 1990, the first explorations of the Gobi led by Western scientists since Roy Chapman Andrews led five expeditions in the 1920s. Andrews, also from the American Museum, found the first dinosaur eggs as well as new dinosaurs and mammals, but politics closed the Gobi to American scientists until Mongolia declared its independence from the Soviet Union early in 1990. Shortly after that, a delegation from the Mongolian Academy of Sciences approached the American Museum, and after hasty preparations the American Museum paleontologists began what was to be a series of remarkably productive explorations of one of the most geographically harsh and visually stunning places on earth.

The Flaming Cliffs were named by Andrews for the colorful badlands, a "fantasy land of orange-red cliffs" with a remarkable array of dinosaur fossils, including the first discovered Protoceratops andrewsi. (Protoceratops proved to be so abundant in the Gobi, although unknown elsewhere, that Novacek's team called them Cretaceous sheep. As Novacek's colleague Mark Norell puts it, "they're what everything else ate.")

While there is a lot of science in Novacek's book, the real fun is in the adventure story, interspersed with sections that explain the paleontological significance of their finds and discuss evolution and classification of species. One of the first things to impress a reader is that these expeditions, which at times seem a bit like summer camp for grown-ups, are dangerous. Food, water, medication, every single thing the expedition might need, has to be on the trucks. The team must include a mechanic to deal with the frequent breakdowns, and due to the lack of parts not just in the Gobi but in the whole of Mongolia, he has to be imaginative. Oatmeal boxes can replace blown gaskets when necessary, for example. Fuel is carried in an accompanying tanker, which must not travel in the blazing midday heat to avoid incineration. Routes have to be as direct as possible across the mapless Gobi to conserve supplies as well as time. One team member's illness could be a catastrophe, and there is no way to guard against such desert hazards as sandstorms or, in a few days of grisly discomfort, biting flies.

Novacek discusses not only these specific expeditions, but touches on other adventures that illustrate his career and shed light on the field of paleontology and its rare moments of exhilaration. He is a well-read, well-traveled and thoughtful person, and his writing is often lively, and occasionally inspiring.  While Novacek seems to be the sort who simply wouldn't say anything bad about a colleague, the camaraderie that develops among the team members feels genuine.

After several difficult and costly expeditions, Novacek and his colleagues are understandably discouraged by their lack of impressive finds. They have some excellent specimens, the importance of which will not be understood until they are studied in the laboratories back home, but the general feeling is that the best specimens have already been removed. Andrews was there first, followed by Sino-Swedish teams, Russians, and Polish-Mongolian teams, and now not enough fossil wealth remains to make the current trips worthwhile. And then, on July 15, 1993, Novacek and friends find their Xanadu.

It starts off badly. The tanker carrying fuel gets stuck in the sand. "There was a moment of resignation, like a terrible unspoken admission that the expedition, with its buried gas tanker, was over." Pulling it out does audible damage to the transmission of another vehicle, and the tanker gets stuck again before they reach their destination. Even that is disappointing. "The red hills and cliffs were pretty, but the area was soŚwell, small. Only a couple of square miles of patchy outcrop lay before us. Besides, we were slightly lost." The next day, making the best of it, the paleontologists head west toward a saddle between the hills, and as soon as they climb out of their trucks they begin seeing fossils. "Mark would sing out, 'Skull!' and, almost on cue, I would find one too."

The discovery outweighs any other in Novacek's or Norell's careers, and that realization has both prospectors shivering with excitement. "In an area the size of a football field we had found a treasure trove that matched the cumulative riches of all the other famous Gobi localities combined." It isn't just the numbers of dinosaurs and mammals unearthed at the site during that field season and the next that is so significant, it is the implied narrative of the scenario itself. They have stumbled upon a nesting site of Oviraptors that was beginning to be ravaged by a couple of Velociraptors when something happened 80 million years ago to bring an abrupt end to all of them. Novacek's guess is a cataclysmic sandstorm, which he describes in graphic and dramatic detail.

Novacek says that on grey winter days in New York, he dreams of being back in the Gobi, and in the Gobi he dreams of a real shower, ice in his glass, and family. Somehow the scorpions, flies and desert dehydration serve to enhance the value of the Novacek team's discoveries, not to mention the pleasures of reading about them in a comfortable chair.

Ellen S. Wilson is the book review editor for Carnegie Magazine.