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No. 451:
Fossils in the Gobi

Today, we pick up where we left off 60 years ago. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Roy Chapman Andrews was the great showman of paleontology 60 years ago -- a real-life Indiana Jones. By the time he died in 1960, he'd written a string of popular books. The titles are marvelous: Under a Lucky Star, Camps and Trails in China, and Whale Hunting With Gun and Camera.

Here's an old photo of Andrews sitting in the Gobi Desert. He wears jodhpurs, high leather boots, and a cowboy hat. His thirty-ought-six leans against a rock beside him. He ponders a nest of dinosaur eggs. Andrews riveted the American imagination in the '20s.

But there was meat along with the potatoes. He joined the American Museum of Natural History when he finished college in 1906. He was the Museum's president when he retired in 1942. By 1921, when he mounted his first expedition to the Gobi desert, he was already a seasoned explorer.

The Gobi turned out to be as rich in dinosaur remains as any place on the planet. The oddities of climate and geology have been kind to their bones. Andrews made spectacular finds. Here, in central Mongolia, he located remains of the Baluchitherium. Baluchiterium was an ancestor of the rhinoceros. He was then believed to be the largest mammal that'd ever walked. Andrews's trips, and those he supervised until 1932, filled the American Museum with dinosaur bones.

But war ended all that. The Chinese had to fight the Japanese invasion at the same time they fought a civil war. Then cold war followed the shooting war. It was 1990 before the American Museum could wangle its next invitation into the Gobi desert.

This time paleontologists went into the Gobi in Russian-made trucks. It was only a quick run -- just two weeks in the desert itself. On one 900-mile stretch the safari encountered only one other car. They found their way back to the Flaming Cliffs, where Andrews had stopped to write:

... we looked down into a vast pink basin, studded with giant buttes like strange beasts, carved from sandstone.

There they found yet another unknown species. They found the ancestor of the Komodo dragon. The Komodo dragon is an 11-foot-long egg-stealing lizard, alive today. But we find Komodo dragons only in warm climates, far to the south. This ancestor once feasted on dinosaur eggs. Now he reaches across time to tell us that Mongolia was warm and tropical 50 million years ago.

The 1990 group also scouted new sites. They'll soon go back to the Gobi for their first serious digging in 60 years. That promises for paleontology what the Hubble telescope promised for astronomy. But it's more. It is Indiana Jones -- science still wearing the cloak of romance. It is the stuff of dreams.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Wilford, J.N., After 60 years, Scientists Return to Fossil 'Paradise' of the Gobi. Science Times. The New York Times, Tuesday, July 29, 1990, pp. B5 and B8.