Montana State University

Mongolian paleontologists with a dream come to MSU

January 16, 2008 -- By Evelyn Boswell, MSU News Service


Baasanjav Ugtbayar, left, and Minjin Chuluun record data from a Mongolian field site. Chuluun is a paleontology and geology professor at Mongolian University Science and Technology. (Photo courtesy of Bolortsetseg Minjin).   High-Res Available

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BOZEMAN -- Jack Horner has flown to Mongolia the past three summers to search for dinosaur bones. Now three members of his field crew have joined him at Montana State University to start developing a new generation of Mongolian paleontologists.

Horner is Ameya Preserve curator of paleontology at MSU's Museum of the Rockies and Regents Professor of Paleontology in Montana.

"I had this dream that I wanted Mongolian paleontology to be developed better," said Bolortsetseg Minjin, a postdoctoral researcher. "I wanted Mongolian paleontologists to work on Mongolian species."

Mongolia already has paleontologists. Her father is one of them, Bolortsetseg said. But most Mongolian paleontologists are older than 50, and many were trained in Russia during the Communist years, she said. Now that Mongolia is open to the West, she'd like to see more young people study paleontology, especially vertebrate paleontology, and learn the latest technology and research methods from western scientists. She wants them to work in state-of-the-art laboratories in their own country.

"In terms of my generation, there are not many people, basically just me," Bolortsetseg said. "That's kind of scary."

She said she considers the Museum of the Rockies to be the top training facility for paleontologists in the United States, which is why she asked Horner if she could work with him. The two met four years ago during Horner's first field season in Mongolia. She also asked if Baasanjav Ugtbayar and Badamkhatan Zorigt could join them.

Horner agreed, and the three are now the only Mongolians studying paleontology in the United States, Bolortsetseg said. The Mongolian research and student projects are being funded by private donations. After the Mongolians finish at MSU, they plan to return home with the ability to find, excavate and study Mongolia's dinosaurs for themselves. Horner supports the idea.

"It's not about me," Horner said. "It's about science. It's about getting data. Obviously, the better the data, the better the questions you can ask. You want people that have been trained well to be out there.

"The more people you have looking, the more stuff you are going to get," Horner continued. "I'm just interested in getting as many good people in the field as we can to find as much stuff as we can to figure out as much of this as we can."

Horner's teams of paleontologists found 180 psittacosaurus skeletons over three field seasons in Mongolia. They excavated as many as 80 in one week. The fossils remain in Mongolia, but Bolortsetseg said she will fly there this spring to retrieve some of the longer bones to prepare and study at the Museum of the Rockies. She especially wants to spend time in the museum's histology lab, learning new methods of studying the dinosaur bones.

"They have a really good histology lab here," Bolortsetseg said. "The histology lab is the best in the country."

Bolortsetseg plans to work with Horner for about a year, then return to Mongolia where there are "many, many" fossils, but not enough people to study them.

"Eventually, in the future, we would like to have a facility in Mongolia to carry on all the lab work we can do in Mongolia," Bolortsetseg said. "The Museum of the Rockies is helping us to establish research facilities in Mongolia."

Baasanjav and Badamkhatan will work at the museum and study English at the Ace Language Institute in Bozeman this spring. In the fall, Baasanjav will start working on her master's degree. She expects it will take her about two years to complete. Badamkhatan will continue working on his doctorate.

"That will take the rest of my life," he joked.

Badamkhatan said he became interested in paleontology while taking geological and paleontology classes in college. His parents, brother and sister are all engineers.

Baasanjav said she started out as a chemistry major, but switched to paleontology her first year in college. It was a new field for her family, she said. Her father is an opera singer. Her mother is an engineer. Her brother has a small business.

Bolortsetseg received her doctorate in paleontology last summer from the City University of New York. Last year, she established the "Institute for the Study of Mongolian Dinosaurs," a research and educational institution in Mongolia. After Bassanjav and Badamkhatan earn their graduate degrees, they will become researchers at this non-profit, non-government institute.

Bolortsetseg is married to Jonathan Geisler, an American paleontologist working at Georgia Southern University.

Evelyn Boswell, (406) 994-5135 or evelynb@montana.edu