Fossil hunting on the open terrain

A typical work day for us begins with a nice morning jog (well, mostly by myself). After a quick breakfast and a meeting on the goals for the day, we set out to reach the target field area.

(breakfast in a local town)

Most of regions we work in are large basins. Trails are often far and few in between, so creative driving is often required to reach hilly sites.

(a muddy trail doesn't stop a good photo op)

(a dirt trail could lead to unexpected dead-ends; luckily we caught the dam on a dry day)

Once we get to an area that looks promising (based on its geology and topography), we set a time line for the day's work. If the terrain looks treacherous, we will pack individual lunches and split up for the day. Otherwise, we report back to the vehicles at lunchtime for the expedition leaders to evaluate potential for discovery, and whether to move on to a different site in the afternoon.

(Zhada Basin, near the foot of the Himalaya mountains; the terrain ranges from rolling hills to steep cliffs. One could spend anywhere from 20 minutes to half a day walking from one hill to the next)

(the fish-rich site of Naoge; the fossils are so concentrated that there is little need for strenuous hikes)

Our day packs are often stuffed with enough water for both drinking and making field jackets using plaster bandages if we find delicate specimens. In addition to the default GPS, rock hammer, acryloid hardener, brushes, awls, field notebooks, and occasional geologic maps, we also bring extra clothes in anticipation of unpredictable weather. A few of us are also equipped with two-way radios in case communication between sub-groups is needed.

(typical warm-weather attire for Jack)

(Yuki Tomida [National Science Museum, Tokyo, Japan] scans the surface for small mammal fossils [more in next part of the series])

Mammal and fish fossils, our main foci, usually weather out as fragments on the plateau; the more complete specimens are often fragile, and thus require care and time to extract using plaster bandages.

(a pair of antelope lower jaws weathering out of a hill in Zhada Basin, Tibet)

(a very fragmentary but important specimen: the first hyena cranium found in Tsaidam Basin, Qinghai Province [you are looking at its teeth])

(a typical plaster jacket; this one contains fish remains from the Naoge area in Tsaidam Basin)

At the end of the day, before we begin a long drive back to our camp / village, we often splurge ourselves on watermelons. They are excellent snacks for fieldwork, and are priced items that we reserve vehicle luggage space for (at the expense of other valuable things like gasoline).

(crew members "slaughter" a watermelon to celebrate a good workday under our belts)

The next in the series will be Part III: screen washing for microfossils


Welcome, new contributors!

Please welcome additional crew members who have just climbed on board as contributors:

Xiaoming Wang, Ph.D.
Expedition leader, carnivore specialist
Curator, Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County


Gary Takeuchi
Field operations, fish specialist
Curatorial assistant, Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County


Qiang Li, Ph.D.
Expedition leader, small mammal specialist
Research scientist, Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology


Life, and roads traveled

So what is it like doing field research at the center of the largest plateau on Earth? Well, getting there and surviving daily life is half the battle.

(A paved road leading from Xining, Qinghai Province)

(our caravan navigating a river crossing in western Tibet. Credit: Xiaoming Wang)

The path to great fossil localities is often littered with hazards. In addition to large trucks that never stop, there are weather conditions that might span the four seasons (and then some) in a single day.

(A stunned driver looking through the wreckage of our vehicle which has just flipped and rolled off an elevated two-lane highway)

Our field areas span an elevational range from about 3000 m to almost 5000 m (we routinely feel like we are on top of the world and the bottom of the sky)

(A lonely mountain pass in western Tibet adorned by prayer flags)

Although we are equipped with camping equipment, we would often times stay in local hostels to avoid the harsh elements; the accommodations are always five stars in China.

(A cautious Gary Takeuchi [LACM] attempts to unscrew a hot light bulb so we could sleep)

Meals are always a joy, and are heavily anticipated events. How many times do you get to light up a gasoline stove in the trunk of a Jeep Cherokee, and watch your advisor fry up eggs (from a distance)?

(Xiaoming [LACM] busts a move on a couple dozen of eggs)

The field expedition always constitutes a bonding experience for its crew members, through snow and hail, eggs and sausages, and whatever challenges might face us.

(2005 field crew at the base of the Yuzhu Peak, Qinghai Province, China)

Check back soon for Part II: Fossil hunting on the open terrain

中文版 (Chinese version)







First Message (from Los Angeles)

Welcome All!
This is a new Blog space that will be used during the 2008-2009 Tibetan Plateau Expedition (and beyond) of the Department of Vertebrate Paleontology (Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County) and Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology (Chinese Academy of Sciences).
Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County

Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology

I will use this space to post exciting news from the field, with photos, and videos. Please check back often! The address of this page is


Zhijie Jack Tseng
graduate student in residence
Department of Vertebrate Paleontology
Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County

graduate student
Integrative and Evolutionary Biology Program
Department of Biological Sciences
University of Southern California