The discovery continues

7 October 2010. News relayed from IVPP, Beijing, China.

After the intense work schedule of the field season, the researchers and students have gone back to their posts and resumed the more sedentary lifestyle of indoor paleontology.

However, the process of discovery continues as preparators and technicians work hard in the laboratories to bring many of the most outstanding field specimens out of their plaster-encased coffins, into the light of research.

One of the new preparator/driver of the 2010 field season, Mr. Shengli Wu of the IVPP, has been preparing ZD1001 specimens with high efficiency. When he finished extracting two bovid dentaries from the field plaster jacket ZD1001.6~7, he continued to remove the rest of the matrix as instructed by the chief preparator.

[ZD1001.6~7 field jacket, shown with the two bovid dentaries which were the original targets of the plaster jacket]

Just a few days ago, an additional fossil specimen was uncovered from the remaining matrix in the jacket...

It is a partial left maxilla of a small felid, matching in size to two other individuals of the same type already discovered from the ZD1001 quarry.

[the unexpected felid maxilla uncovered in the IVPP laboratory]

Four teeth are preserved on this new specimen, and the complete canine will be informative in our identification of this carnivoran once all materials have been prepared.

Meanwhile, a partial skull of the same felid is being prepared in the laboratory of the LACM. More updates will be posted after the annual gathering of vertebrate paleontologists from around the world at the meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, happening this year in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania from 9 to 13 October.



[A disintegrated kiang Equus kiang carcass in the "Valley of the kiang" locality. Zhada Basin, Tibet. 19 August 2010]

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[Expedition geologist Dr. Guangpu Xie takes notes at locality ZD1001, 300 feet above the field vehicles in Zhadagou. Zhada Basin, Tibet. 7 August 2010]

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[Crew members prospect on a patch of highly fossiliferous outcrop (locality ZD1001) above the Zhadagou Trail. Zhada Basin, Tibet. 7 August 2010]

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[Drs. Xiaoming Wang (left) and Qiang Li (right) plan for fieldwork in the Zhada Basin. Ngari District, Tibet Autonomous Region, China. 5 August 2010]

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[Juan Liu of the University of Alberta carries a plaster jacket containing a rhino radius bone that she had just collected. West of Tuosu Lake, Qinghai Province, China. 28 July 2010]

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[Gary Takeuchi of LACM takes notes on the morning's finds in the Quanshuiliang locality area. Qinghai Province, China. 28 July 2010]

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Glimpses of the 2010 field season: Jack's photos

[an exposed partial dentary of a medium-sized bovid at the eastern edge of the Quanshuiliang area, Qinghai Province, China. July 2010]

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Inner Mongolia project takes a hit, moves forward

9 September 2010. Xiaotangshan, rurtal Beijing, China

In early September a small team of technicians visited the Baogeda Ula quarry site that Jack and the crew worked on in 2009, to attempt to extract a large field jacket left there (dubbed "The Southern Block"). What the crew found was an empty hole with fragments of what's left over of the jacket.

After consultation with the local police, the Land Management office, and the local rancher, we concluded that the jacket was destroyed by tomb raiders in Abaga. Many small operations of illegal excavation plague the Inner Mongolian grasslands which boasts thousands of ancient Mongolian burial sites. The cultural bureau has no adequate resources to protect and manage all of them. Unfortunately, our site was targeted by locals who do not differentiate between burial sites and fossil sites.

With the largest chunk of bonebed from our 2009 excavation destroyed, we (those in Beijing) turned our attention to the smaller field jacket (dubbed "The Northern Block") which was transported to the rural field station of the IVPP in Xiaotangshan at the end of the field seasons last year.

[a cocoon hangs quietly outside the warehouse which houses field jackets made by IVPP field teams from all over China]

Dr. Qiang Li and Jack spent the day opening up the Northern Block with help from technicians at the field station, and then immediately began preparation on the jacket. So far, two scapulae and two radii have been uncovered, in addition to rib and vertebral fragments that were exposed during excavation.

[Xiaotangshan technician Ding saws open the top of IM0902 "The Northern Block"]

An in-house technician will be assigned to the preparation of the jacket with Li and Jack's supervision, to collect data on the arrangement and preservation of fossil bones while preparation proceeds for the next few months.

[the surface of the jacket after first day's preparation]


ZD1001 bonebed

8 September 2010. IVPP, Beijing, China

Fossil specimens from Tibet have all been unpacked and stored in specimen boxes. Now comes the more "scientific" part of curation: make sense out of the fossils.

We have extracted fossils from the ZD1001 bonebed with the purpose of studying its taphonomy (the study of the circumstances surrounding the preservation of different types of fossil deposits). One aspect of examining its preservation involved collecting all bone fragments and elements that were uncovered during the process of excavation, and the documentation of the orientation of the bones as they are found in the ground.

[a scan of Jack's field notes, showing a numbered list of specimens taken out of ZD1001 {left page} and their orientation and position in the ground {right page}]

Digitizing and building a quarry map showing the arrangement of bones from ZD1001 is one step towards understanding the environment in which the fossil vertebrates died and became preserved.

To many Angelinos this is all too familiar; the Rancho la Brea deposits of Hancock Park are full of concentrated pockets of fossils (although la Brea fossils are younger in geologic age than those from ZD1001 by a few million years).


Unwrapping Tibet

7 September 2010. IVPP, Beijing, China.

The field vehicles arrived in Beijing on Sunday evening, after a ten-day trek from the western border of Tibet across the Tibetan Plateau and down to coastal China. We welcomed the drivers back with an early dinner, and sent them home for some rest.

Monday morning was the usual off-loading of the vehicles which made our fossil finds visible for all in the institute to see. Many passers-by asked about our trip and the nature of our new discoveries. The real work begins, however, with the unpacking and curating of the specimens.

[boxes of mammal fossils as they were in our Zhada Basin headquarter]

Even though the title "curator" may invoke many glorious (sometimes not so glorious) and adventurous associations in the common enthusiast, its core responsibility is far from those perceptions. Work does not end with the discovery of a new fossil specimen (in fact, that is the simplest and easiest step, in my opinion). The cleaning, labeling, identification, and proper documentation and storage of each and every single specimen that comes into one's attention is the bridge that allows a specimen to be scientifically studied and made known to the world.

I gained a full appreciation of the "background work" of curation and collection through working with Curatoral Assistant Gary Takeuchi, who upheld a high standard of specimen curation even under the more adverse field conditions. This year I am left to curate the specimens on my own terms as both Xiaoming and Gary have returned to Los Angeles.

It is no easy task, and specimens are still being unpacked at this point. Measurements will commence on the in situ specimens from the ZD1001 quarry as soon as everything from this season has been boxed and labeled.



Back in Beijing

31 August 2010. IVPP, Beijing.

The majority of the team has returned to Beijing from Lhasa. Our field vehicles are still on the road back home (they have reached Geermu, Qinghai Province as of last night, and should arrive in Lanzhou today).

We are organizing the few specimens that we brought back from Tibet, and waiting for the rest of the specimens to come back to the institute. It is warm and smoggy in Beijing, with plenty of oxygen in the air (compared to Zhada!)


Last day enroute to Lhasa

Last night, we stayed in the tourist town of Shigaze to give some members of our team the opportunity of visiting its big temple. This morning, a few miles out of town, the main highway to Lhasa was closed for repair works. We were forced to take the old southern rout to Lhasa, about 100 km of detour but a scenic road taken by most tourists. Since we are in no particular hurry (we'll have three days to cool our heels in Lhasa because of difficulty in obtaining plane tickets), it is worth the extra time to see the scenery -- 6000 meter plus snow peak (Jiangsanglamu), pristine lake (Yangchuoyongcuo), and ancient Tibetan town that had resisted British invasions (Jiangze).
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Over the rainbow

23 August 2010. On the road

We left the Holy Mountain at 0600 this morning, rushing in the dark to get past the road block at Huoer Village which begins at 0700.

Thick clouds overhead dumped a coat of snow over the peaks as we navigated several rushing rivers.

The road home seems distinctly mellower than our entry into the wild.

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Don't cry for me Zhada County

22 August 2010. Route 219

We are driving towards Lhasa (still four days away) today, having wrapped up our work in the basin.

Striped basin sediments gave way to misty metamorphic basement rock as we ascended the basin margin; clouds and fog enveloped the colorful peaks of the Aylari Ranges.

Descent into the adjacent valley takes us to Menshi, a small village where Pleistocene fossil horses were found last year. We might stop to examine the Quaternary "overburden" (as Neogene paleontologists often unlovingly refer to Pleistocene sediments) for fossil clues.

On the road again...

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Will Downs memorial

In 2006 we set up a memorial site for our friend Will Downs, who had a life-long wish of working in the Zhada Basin but passed away without ever setting foot in Tibet. This year our attempt to revisit that site failed due to road problems. Yesterday we erected another memorial with Tibetan prayer flags, this time overlooking the town of Zhada, and retold some our favorite Will Downs stories. Of this year' team members, Guangpu and Xiaoming can share many of the memorable moments about Will.

By mid afternoon, a violent thunderstorm/hail caught us before we had a chance to escape. We were all more or less drenched but otherwise left unharmed (photo of peeping out a make-shift raincoat). Was Will displeased with our selection of wine?

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Sometimes things just work out

Our original plan of camping at the Xiangze Farm was quickly dashed because a flash flood had damaged a bridge. We had no choice but to activate our plan B, which is to camp at a promising site we briefly visited in our 2007 season.

We are not disappointed. In our first day, everyone got something, including dental and postcranial materials of gomphothere elephant, deer antlers, horse teeth, etc.

As usual, a light rain starts in the evening, accompanied by a nice rainbow and a sunset that looks like a "V".

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Good Morning India

17 August 2010. On route to Xiangzi

We rode out from Zhada at 0900 this morning. We are driving to Xiangzi, in the northwest corner of the basin.

We will camp there for a few days, and prospect for fossils in that area.

The road to Xiangzi is long but scenic; along the way are mountains of the Indian Himalayas in the distance. Pakistan is also just around the corner!

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A village tugged deep inside a canyon

While Gary, Jack and Li Qiang's team is busy excavating their quarry (see previous posts), the rest of the team led by Xiaoming is roaming the country side to find additional fossil sites. We stumbled upon a new road that lead to a canyon previously inaccessible. At the end of this road is a beautiful little village (named Duoxiang) next to a most lush patch of pasture in this part of the country. A lovely little pagoda stands at the foothill (photo) as well as some ancient ruins nearby. Unfortunately, we did not find any fossils in this canyon, but no regrets for such a lovely day.
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Days of our lives in the quarry

12 August 2010. The most awesome quarry in Tibet (the one and only)

The excavation crew (Qiang Li, Juan Liu, Fuqiao Shi, Gary Takeuchi, and Zhijie Jack Tseng) spent (so far) five working days in the quarry. We have recorded 100 specimens extracted in place so far, with more to excavate in the coming days.

This quarry is probably the first and most significant of its kind in Tibet to date; the fauna collected from a 6 by 6 feet hole in the ground so far composes 14 different vertebrate animals (six of which are brand new to the region). Among them are a bird, three kinds of rabbits, a zokor, a felid (an adult and a juvenile), etc.

We are simply overwhelmed by the sheer number of specimens in such a small areas; Gary is getting flashbacks of his days in the La Brea pits.

A few photos of our work area!
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Main street, breakfast

10 August 2010. Zhada, Tibet

We are authorized to continue our fieldwork. A slow morning with partly cloudy skies awaits us.

More excavation today; gotta get those 11 jaws outta there!
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