For Mongolia, the future rides in on dinosaurs

Originally published in The Futurist Naturalist in August 2015. Written by Thea Boodhoo.


Light fades across the desert landscape as I wait outside the visitors center at Dinosaur National Monument, where I’m volunteering for the summer. I busy myself with a map of the geologic column, hoping the mosquitoes remain uninterested for the next half hour. I got here early, but it’s not long before a small family approaches: woman, husband, daughter about four.

I met them the day before, in front of the Wall of Bones

I met them the day before, in front of the Wall of Bones that Dinosaur National Monument was designated for, officially known as Carnegie Quarry. It’s a magnificent display of dinosaur fossils, strewn across a near-vertical rock face that was a horizontal river bed 150 million years ago. It’s a carefully preserved slice of the Jurassic, the golden age of dinosaurs.

Dan Chure, our park paleontologist, introduced me to their group–two families from Mongolia on a road trip together. I’d heard one of the travelers’ names before: paleontologist Bolor Minjin. I was thrilled to meet her, and she generously agreed to an interview later, even though she was on vacation. And here we are, waving away bugs as the sky dims.

I start off by asking about her work in Mongolia.

“Back 2007,” she begins, “I established a nonprofit, nongovernment organization which is called Institute for the Study of Mongolian Dinosaurs.”

Bolor Minjin excavating a nesting oviraptorid in the Gobi Desert, Mongolia. Photo courtesy Bolor Minjin.

Bolor Minjin excavating a nesting oviraptorid in the Gobi Desert, Mongolia. Photo courtesy Bolor Minjin.

ISMD, for short. The organization’s goal is to educate the Mongolian people about their country’s most famous scientific resource–dinosaur fossils–and to conserve those fossils for the future. Its vision for the next ten years is to build a new paleontology museum in Mongolia.

She tells me the long history of paleontological exploitation in her country. I recall a book I read last year by Polish paleontologist Zofia Kielan-Jaworowska, Hunting for Dinosaurs. I loved reading her descriptions of field work in Mongolia, her encounters with the people there, her account of the windswept desert landscapes and encounters with wildlife modern and ancient. I had never thought of what happened to the fossils her expeditions brought back, or what their loss might have meant for Mongolia. Until today.

Bolor's colleagues in Mongolia pose with the Torbosaurus bataar specimen that was recently returned to its county. Photo courtesy of Bolor Minjin.

Staff of The Central Museum of Mongolian Dinosaurs pose with Tarbosaurus bataar, a theropod dinosaur. This specimen was taken from Mongolia illegally and put up for auction in New York three years ago. Thanks to Bolor’s efforts, the specimen was returned to Mongolia. Photo courtesy of Bolor Minjin.

Kielan-Jaworowska’s fossil hunts weren’t the only ones to take important specimens from Mongolia, nor were they the first. In the 1920s, the American Museum of Natural History sent a series of scientific expeditions to Mongolia, taking a slew of awe-inspiring dinosaur specimens back to New York with them, never to see Mongolia again. They were followed by paleontologists, and countless poachers, from around the world.

“Once a fossil left the country,” Bolor told me, “knowledge left with it.”

“Once a fossil left the country,” Bolor told me, “knowledge left with it.”

Bring Mongolia’s dinosaurs back, she believes, and a new generation will have the chance to learn about them. As they have in so many natural history museums, the towering, mysterious skeletons would spark curiosity about everything needed to understand them, from geology and anatomy, to physics, evolution, chemistry and engineering. Raise the ceiling of intellectual enthusiasm high enough for dinosaurs, and it could keep rising forever.

She’s already found success. In 2012, a rare Mongolian specimen of Tarbosaurus baatar, which had been illegally collected and smuggled out of the country, went up for auction in the United States, catching international attention and teaching many Mongolians about a native dinosaur species for the first time. Before Tarbosaurus made the news in Mongolia, she tells me, very few people there could name a Mongolian dinosaur. Now almost everyone can.

Thanks to her efforts and collaboration with the Mongolian government, the Tarbosaurus is back home, along with two dozen other stolen dinosaurs she’s repatriated since.

Raise the ceiling of intellectual enthusiasm high enough for dinosaurs, and it could keep rising forever.

The idea of bringing Mongolia’s cultural resources home has bled off into other fields. Countless religious artifacts have been taken from the country over the last century, and now efforts are being made to find them and bring them back, inspired by Bolor’s success with dinosaurs.

And Mongolians are hungry for knowledge, she tells me.

We’re interrupted when her daughter runs up, excited about a big beetle she just saw. She asks me what kind it was–I wish I knew. I’m really more of a vertebrate person.

I was only a little older than Bolor’s daughter the first time I came to Dinosaur National Monument. My memories of it were part of why I applied to be here this summer, along with an interest in the Digital Quarry Project, an effort to bring the fossils and history of Carnegie Quarry online for those who can’t make it to the physical Wall of Bones. A three hour drive from Salt Lake City and even farther from the next closest city, Denver, Dinosaur National Monument isn’t exactly accessible without concerted effort and full tank of gas.

Bolor at the Flaming Cliffs, an important fossil site in the Gobi Desert where the first dinosaur eggs were found.

Bolor at the Flaming Cliffs, an important fossil site in the Gobi Desert where the first dinosaur eggs were found. Photo courtesy of Bolor Minjin.

It’s across the street compared to the Gobi, however. Most Americans know Asia’s largest desert only from documentaries romanticizing it as barren dinosaur country populated by rugged horselords who hunt with golden eagles. If roads are seen at all in the footage, they are long and dusty, stretching out into rock-strewn plains dotted with shrubs and, on a busy day, a black-tailed gazelle or bactrian camel. How true that vision is, I don’t yet know, but Bolor tells me there are few museums in the Gobi, and none focus on paleontology. So how would the inhabitants of the Gobi ever have a chance to learn about the fossils that have been taken from their land?

Bolor began to envision a traveling museum, a ger–a Mongolian yurt–with Mesozoic scenery painted on canvas around the outside, and dinosaur bones and activities inside.

To answer this question, Bolor began to envision a traveling museum, a ger–a Mongolian yurt–with Mesozoic scenery painted on canvas around the outside, and dinosaur bones and activities inside. A modified version of the portable homes used by the nomads, it could be taken down and put back up in different towns all across Mongolia, attracting the young and curious with its bold scenic paintings of ancient fauna.

Just when the plan for the yurt museum was gaining steam, a unique opportunity came up. Bolor heard from a friend back in New York that the American Museum of Natural History was ready to donate its moveable dinosaur museum, which already held many Mongolian specimens and came equipped with modern, high-end mini-exhibits and activities. She raised the thirty-thousand dollars it would cost to ship it across the world with the help of Gerry Ohrstrom and Epicurus Fund, and it arrived last summer.

“With that amount of money we could have done a lot of educational things in Mongolia. But we just said it’s worth it, to bring that museum to Mongolia.”

The interior of the moveable dinosaur museum. Photo courtesy Bolor Minjin.

The interior of the moveable dinosaur museum. Photo courtesy of Bolor Minjin.

She’s now running an IndieGoGo campaign to get the roving museum into the heart of the Gobi. She feels strongly that the people whose land holds Mongolia’s most famous export deserve to learn about it themselves. The campaign raised almost thirty percent of its goal in the first ten days, with roughly five thousand dollars to go by mid August.

If a museum can make it to the far reaches of the Gobi, I wondered, what else can? Do the nomads all have smartphones?

She feels strongly that the people whose land holds Mongolia’s most famous export deserve to learn about it themselves.

“Yes! The world is changing,” she says, smiling. A roving dinosaur museum isn’t the only mobile platform that’s been on her mind as a tool for spreading science. She mentions the American Museum of Natural History’s science-for-kids website, Ology, as inspiration for what the Internet could provide Mongolia’s youth.

Bolor believes change can come fast to her country. “We’re only three million, our population, and it’s very homogeneous,” unlike the United States, where diverse cultures absorb new ideas in different ways at different times. “If anything, that’s the kind of thing I’m looking for. [If] we want to make a change we can make it happen quick.” That’s why she wants to focus on young people, even though she believes people of all ages can learn and contribute. “We should focus on the young ones because they’re the people that are the future.”

Children are Mongolia's future, and Bolor believes change can happen fast when it comes to science edication. Photo courtesy of Bolor Minjin.

Children are Mongolia’s future, and Bolor believes change can happen fast when it comes to science education. Photo courtesy of Bolor Minjin.

The desert twilight is fading, and her young daughter is restless–I’ve taken away enough of their vacation time. We wrap things up with a look even farther forward. Cenozoic, even.

“Next I’m thinking a project on birds, because birds are dinosaurs.” Birding is becoming popular in Mongolia, and like their ancient ancestors, birds are another avenue to science for the curious.

Science, at its best, opens up possibilities. And that’s what Bolor has done, and will keep doing, for Mongolia, whichever direction her projects take her.

When I first met her in front of the Wall of Bones, she expressed her desire to see something like it in Mongolia. As I walk back to my car, stars drawing my gaze up to the quarry, I’m certain the children of Bolor’s homeland will soon have the same privilege her daughter did here in Utah–on their own road trips, through their own great desert, the Gobi.


If you would like to support Bolor’s campaign to bring the moveable dinosaur museum to the Gobi desert, you can fund it on IndieGoGo until August 21, 2015.

All photos in this article are copyright Bolor Minjin and were used with her permission, since our interview was short and Mongolia was far away.

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