Along with His Royal Highness Jigyel Ugyen Wangchuck, Matthew R. DeSantis @matthewrdesantis is the founder of MyBhutan mybhutan.com; an elite travel outfitter which allows select guests to explore deeper into Bhutan. In addition, MyBhutan’s media production arm shares the most extensive archive of travel content ever created for Bhutan. Matthew is also the founder of Beyul Labs; a technology company partnered with the Bhutan National Bank to digitally transform Bhutan’s service industries. In order to preserve Bhutanese culture, heritage, and spiritual values, Matthew and Her Highness Kesang Choden T. Wangchuck are leading a momentous nonprofit initiative for the Central Monastic Body to document, digitize and archive Bhutan’s sacred treasures. Outside his profession, Matthew introduced baseball to Bhutan and established its national program, founded and chairs The Explorers Club Bhutan Chapter, and serves as Bhutan’s U.S. State Dept Warden. One of Bhutan’s longest non-native residents, Matthew’s work is committed to Bhutan’s development, conservation, and sustainability.
I jolt up to the sound of thunder breaking the silence of the murky morning sky.
This startling awakening is a relief to my back, which had been pressed against a hard object beneath the unpadded tent floor. Yesterday, I had parted with my air mattress and sleeping bag, which were placed in an evacuation vehicle transporting two injured colleagues to a regional clinic some four hours away over unforgiving terrain. As my left hand calmly sweeps the ground searching for my clothes, I pat my chest with my right and realize that I had never undressed. I open my irritated eyes and my attention is immediately diverted to a beam of light seeping through a cavity in the tent. In a moment of pure joy, I gaze at the dust particles dancing in its spotlight with thankfulness that I’ve regained my vision. With the next flash of lightning, I count Mississippi’s and sigh in relief knowing that the storm will not hit us. This wind that escapes me in the morning stillness seems eerily displaced, though. We had just survived a ferocious 70-mph sandstorm that lasted 13 hours.
As I begin to defloor my tent, I ask Chinzorig Tsogtbaatar, a local paleontologist on our expedition, if the magnitude of this sandstorm was common in this part of the Gobi. “No. That was the most violent I’ve ever experienced,” he replies. I chuckle as he speaks. Chinzo thinks I’m reacting to something he said, but I’m not. As he was speaking, I noticed that the uncomfortable object under my tent wasn’t a rock. It was a dinosaur bone, one of more than 400 we would be unearthing over the course of a fortnight. We are part of a major aerial survey and fossil-finding campaign carried out jointly by the Institute of Paleontology and Geology (IPG) of the Mongolian Academy of Sciences and the Hong Kong Chapter of The Explorers Club, with logistical support and vehicles provided by the Infiniti Motor Company.
It was here in the early 1920s that former Explorers Club president Roy Chapman Andrews of the American Museum of Natural History carried out a suite of expeditions that produced a wealth of dinosaur remains. Among the most significant of these early finds were dinosaur eggs, which proved definitively that dinosaurs were in fact reptiles. Since then, this region of the Gobi, which Andrews dubbed the Flaming Cliffs for the fiery red hue of its sediments in the late-day sun, has yielded a virtual treasure trove for paleontologists: thousands of specimens of dinosaurs and a host of mammalian fossils that are providing an important window on life in Central Asia during the Cretaceous Period, 100 million to 70 million years ago.
Given that the Gobi Desert is one of the most desolate places on Earth—battered by scorching summer sun and biting winter winds—it is hard to imagine that its million-square-kilometer patchwork of seemingly endless sand dunes, badlands, and rugged outcrops was once a verdant landscape teeming with prehistoric life, much of which has been revealed through the work of the IPG. Directed by Chinzo’s father, Khishigjav Tsogtbaatar, the IPG’s elite team of 82 researchers has made some of our generation’s most significant contributions to paleontology, including most recently a detailed study of a diverse group of theropod dinosaurs known as ornithomimosaurs from the Upper Cretaceous period, the remains of which were recovered from the Gobi’s fossil-rich Nemegt Formation.
In fact, it is IPG’s commitment to the field that has in large part been the inspiration for our expedition, which was organized by Hong Kong chapter chair Michael Barth to celebrate Andrews’ groundbreaking work in the region nearly a century ago. Our 40-person team includes 15 members of The Explorers Club, most of whom have never worked on a paleontological project before. What they bring to the field, however, is expertise in the realm of technology deployment, remote sensing, and data collection, as well as mapping and information processing. The goal of the expedition is simple: to put the latest technological tools to use in supporting the important work of the IPG paleontologists, which until now had relied largely on traditional methods of reconnaissance and field research.
The challenges of physically prospecting this harsh environment tethered with the constant surface changes due to floods and high winds make conducting research with traditional methods in the Gobi extremely difficult. Waking up in the Gobi and retracing an area you had scouted the day before draws similar comparison to returning to a bar the morning after to search for your favorite jacket. You may have a slight recollection of once being there, but most of it feels like a new place. Because the Gobi is not accommodating to these traditional methods of research, we made the decision to approach our expedition with tools never before used by paleontology, namely drones equipped with an array of sensors to survey its extreme terrain for traces of ancient life in record time.
The use of remote-sensing data for mapping paleontological resources has traditionally been limited by the relatively poor resolution of satellite imagery and the small scale of the fossils when compared to their surrounding landscape. Our drones, by contrast, are equipped with multi-spectral and thermal cameras that can scan the desert floor for fossil-bearing sandstones, mudstones, and shales. The UAV-mounted spectral camera systems are extremely sensitive to the compositional variations of fossil-bearing units relative to their surrounding units and sediment cover, which allows field crews to map even the slightest variations, which may correspond to the occurrence of fossil-rich layers at a scale far greater than can be traditionally field-mapped. The collected data are then input into a software program capable of producing three-dimensional maps of surveyed areas, accurate down to the centimeter level.
The majority of our selected localities are places along Roy Chapman Andrews’ original survey route. To these have been added Bügiin Tsav and Öösh—localities identified by IPG as fossil-rich regions.
Our technology team, led by Scott Nowicki and Drew Wendeborn from Quantum Spatial, first analyzed poor-resolution satellite imagery to select areas with probability of discoveries. We’d then compare these findings to the GPS points gathered from our ground team that walked the desert floor each day. After determining locations of interest, our drone operators would fly the aircrafts in a grid pattern over these regions. Each evening, we’d return to our field laboratory to process data gathered from both the air and ground surveys for processing. We would spend a few days at each locality before piling into our Infiniti vehicles to transverse the desert and reach the next.
While the visual information we gathered is still being processed, our work in the field has already begun to bear fruit. In a locality known as Bügiin Tsav, for instance, high-resolution spectral unit maps have shown a correlation between our presumed fossil-rich layer locations and fossil-rich locations previously observed by IPG ground surveys.
Over the course of our expedition, we discovered more than 450 dinosaur fossils, including three new species. Among them are an ostrich-type creature and a turtle-like one. We also found a dinosaur egg, a Tarbosaurus skull, and the remains of potentially the largest sauropod ever found in Mongolia. In fact, there wasn’t an evening when our team reported back to camp without their sharing the excitement of a significant new discovery. I personally found more than 60 fossils, including some of those mentioned above. I also found a coprolite, aka a fossilized dinosaur turd, which the IPG researchers did not find to be as momentous as I did.
Perhaps more important, the expedition achieved its goals in terms of enhancing the IPG’s institutional capacity through the use of technology. Ultimately, these tools are empowering IPG talent to be even more successful in making future advances in paleontological studies. After all, they are the field experts, not us.
Unfortunately for me, the expedition ended much as it had begun–with a crack. Only this time, it was not a clap of thunder, but the bones in my right leg after a brief wrestling match with Maina, one of our paleontologists, during our last night in the field. I became the third team member to be evacuated from camp. I was thrown into the bed of one of our expedition vehicles, which had already safely carried us more than 2,200 kilometers. With no pain killers or brace for stabilization, my colleague Ian Mangiardi actually laid on top of my leg to prevent it from bouncing on the rough, road-less terrain as we sped off to the nearest medical facility some four hours away. It was dark at this point and Tegshee, a colleague who had courageously taken the wheel, drove through the desert so skillfully that you would have thought he was retracing tracks in his backyard. During the ride, I fell into shock. At first only my limbs went numb, but the numbness soon crept up the left side of my face and subsided near eye level. I was unable to process words clearly and became abnormally tired. Ian and I were concerned of the danger of my going unconscious and so we agreed that we would talk until we arrived. We reminisced on the adventures we shared together in the Himalayas. We spoke about our families. It is bizarre how the mind is unable to process normal conversations when in a disturbed state, but finds clarity in understanding the meaningful instances that make life precious.
Upon arriving at our destination, we woke up two medical practitioners to evaluate my leg. After a bit of hesitation, they agreed to reset my ankle. I was asked to lie on my belly and had painkillers injected into my buttocks. They then began to twist away at my ankle. The relocation took about ten minutes, much longer than a standard case. Once the ankle was relocated, about 80 percent of my pain had been relieved. We thanked them, paid the $80 fee, and continued to drive through the night to the capital. The following evening, Ian and I had a chance to swing by our expedition farewell dinner before taking a flight out of Ulaanbaatar so that I could return to the States for an emergency surgery.
Despite the less than ideal end to the expedition on a personal level, I’m eager to return to the field. I often close my eyes to relive an evening we spent laying on the desert floor after nightfall. Turning my head in every direction, I was amazed at the expanse of the clear, starlit sky. Upon my return to the Gobi, I have pledged to be more aware of the signals in the firmament, hoping it will help me uncover a few more of the many secrets hidden in the Land of the Eternal Blue Sky.
Our expedition led us deep into the land of the shamans (Buu) who believe that creation is never complete and that we are in a constant process of dreaming the world into being. The same can be said for exploration. In March—alongside our IPG expedition teammates, who are now fellow Club members—we will be receiving the Citation of Merit for this expedition during The Explorers Club Annual Dinner. I hope that this award inspires other dreamers like myself to continue in their own quest for exploration.