Wild horses in Mongolia

This video says about itself:

Pure Nature Specials – Wild Horses Return to China

3 February 2013

After many decades, the wild horses of West China return to their ancestral home range. Relentless poaching early last century wiped them out, but a new breeding program has restored 27 Przewalski’s horses.

From the BBC:

The world’s last truly wild horse is making a comeback

Most of the horses we think of as “wild” are just domestic horses gone feral. There is only one type of horse that remains utterly wild

By Jane Palmer

11 November 2015

In the majestic Mongolian landscape, where the vast grasslands meet the endless dunes, herds of horses rove. Neither tethered nor constrained by fencing, they run and graze on the arid, windswept steppes.

The very sight of wild horses symbolises freedom, but these Mongol horses are not truly wild. They are descended from domesticated horses, possibly from the same ones tamed by the armies of Genghis Khan in the 13th century.

But for all the skills and passion of these “Hell’s Horsemen,” there remained one horse they never tamed: Przewalski’s horse. These horses are now the only truly wild horses anywhere in the world. After being driven to the brink of extinction, they are now making a slow recovery – but their future is far from guaranteed.

When the Russian explorer Nikolai Przewalski visited China at the end of the 19th century, he was presented with the skull and hide of a horse shot on the Chinese-Russian border. A zoological examination determined that the remains were of a wild horse, and Przewalski’s horse received its official name. It’s pronounced “sha-val-skee”.

However, Mongolians had always named the horses “takhi”, which means “spirit” or “spiritual”. They regarded Przewalski’s horses as man’s messengers to the gods.

“They are sacred and symbolic to the local people,” says Claudia Feh, director of the Association for the Przewalski’s horse (TAKH). “It is taboo to kill them.”

The horses are short and muscular. They are smaller than most domesticated horses, reaching about 13 hands high at the shoulder, or a little more than 4ft (1.2m).

Their coat ranges from brown to dun, with a pale underbelly and muzzle. A dark dorsal stripe runs from the mane, down the spine, to a black-ish tail. Unlike domestic horses, their mane is short and stands upward, like a mohawk.

“They are wild and spirited,” says Feh. “They are the only wild horses on Earth, and they behave like it.”

It is unclear if they should be described as a separate species, distinct from domestic horses. But certainly the two are not completely alike. In October 2015, Ludovic Orlando of the University of Copenhagen in Denmark and his colleagues published a study showing that Przewalski’s and domesticated horses have significant differences in genes that govern metabolism, muscle contraction, reproduction and behaviour.

Orlando’s team sequenced the genomes of 11 living Przewalski’s horses, representing all of the founding lineages, and five historical specimens dating from 1878 to 1929. They also obtained a tooth from the skull given to Przewalski.

Although the Przewalski’s horse genomes differed from those of domesticated horses, the two groups only diverged 45,000 years ago. “That represents a relatively short stretch in evolutionary time,” Orlando says.

If Przewalski’s horses do represent a true species, they are a young one. But for many decades it seemed that their story was going to be a short one.

In the late 18th century, herds of Przewalski’s horses ranged from the Russian Steppes east to Kazakhstan, Mongolia and northern China. But their numbers declined rapidly over the next few decades, due to a combination of hunting, harsh winters and increasing land use by humans.

Scientists saw the last wild Przewalski’s horse in 1969, in Mongolia’s Dzungarian Gobi Desert. Elderly herders have reported seeing the horses later. “But by the late 1970s they had totally disappeared,” Feh says.

As a result, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) listed the Przewalski’s horse as “extinct in the wild“.

The only remaining Przewalski’s horses lived in zoos. In 1950 there were just 12. But an ambitious breeding program brought those numbers up to around 1,500 by the early 1990s.

With the survival of the species assured, scientists turned their attention toward returning them to freedom.

In 1994, they tried two reintroductions: in the Takhin Tal Nature Reserve in the Dzungarian Gobi Desert and at Hustai National Park in Mongolia. More recently, the horses have been reintroduced to other regions of Mongolia as well as Kazakhstan, Russia, Hungary and China.

Feh was among the scientists convinced that Przewalski’s horses could return to the wild. As a teenager, she was inspired by seeing 17,000-year-old paintings along the walls of the Lascaux Caves in south-west France, in which Przewalski’s horse look-a-likes prance and bound amid a throng of cattle, bison, stags and bears.

Struck by the freedom and abundance of ancient European wildlife, Feh began studying semi-wild horses. “I wasn’t just impressed with the beauty of the horses, but all the other animals that existed at the same time in our world that have now disappeared,” she says. “That just touched me.”

In 1992 she established TAKH, an organization dedicated to returning Przewalski’s horses to the wild and allowing them to flourish independently.

Having studied the horses’ behaviour, Feh believed that their ability to form cohesive family groups that stayed together would be critical to their survival. So instead of taking horses directly from captivity to Mongolia, she spent a decade raising them on a 400-hectare tract of land on the remote Causse Méjean plateau in southern France.

“It is quite a harsh environment there, and I look on it as a sort of training camp because they learned how to survive,” Feh says. As expected, the horses formed small family groups.

At the same time, Feh scoped out relocation sites.

In 1996, she settled on the remote region of Khomiin Tal, a 2,500 sq km tract of land in western Mongolia. “You go there and you can just breathe,” Feh says. “You have this impression that the sky is inside your head. It’s a place to be wild.”

n preparation for the horses’ arrival, TAKH built a fence around a 135 sq km release site to allow the vegetation to grow. They also negotiated with local herders, to ensure they would keep their domestic horses out of the reintroduction site.

In 2004, after ten years of preparation, TAKH reintroduced four groups of horses to Khomiin Tal. Upon arrival, the horses formed their family groups and successfully kept wolves at bay.

But threats to the horses abound.

“There is a certain amount of risk involved in reintroducing these animals,” says Chris Walzer of the University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna in Austria. “You just have to learn some of them are going to not make it.”

In 2009, Mongolia experienced a brutal winter or “zud”, in which temperatures dropped as low as -47 °C. Despite the efforts of the scientists and local herders, more than half the Przewalski’s horses in Takhin Tal perished, due to cold and lack of food.

Feh’s site had enough forage and not one horse died. Nevertheless, the 2009 zud cast doubt on whether the horses can successfully survive in a country with such extreme weather – especially if man-made climate change makes it even more extreme.

However, the biggest challenge to the Przewalski’s horses may come from within: from their DNA.

Although Przewalski’s horses have 66 chromosomes and domestic horses have only 64, the two can mate and produce fertile offspring. That means they could hybridise themselves out of existence by mating with domestic horses.

This process has already begun. When the first foals were bought over to zoos in the 19th century, they were accompanied by domestic Mongolian mares that provided milk.  Many people believed that one of the most famous Przewalski’s horses, Theodore, was sired from one such domestic mare and a Przewalski stallion.

“We tested the genome of Theodore and found it to be a mix,” Orlando says. Along with other genetic tests, this shows that the two populations have been interbreeding, even after humans domesticated the horse about 5,500 years ago.

“But the tests that we’ve done showed that they were probably not mixed so much as people have previously thought,” Orlando says. Only some of the living Przewalski’s horses are mixed.

The other big problem for Przewalski’s horses is that the current population derives solely from 12 individuals. That means they are all rather genetically similar, perhaps too similar to survive.

The scientists compared the levels of genetic diversity within the current Przewalski’s horse population with the levels of diversity in other horse populations, such as Icelandic horses. Overall, the Przewalski’s horses are less genetically diverse.

“But at the same time, their diversity is fairly comparable to some breeds that are not endangered,” Orlando says. “There’s no reason to believe that there’s not enough diversity in the Przewalskis for them to survive.”

The risk is that the horses have had to mate with close relatives, which would mean they each carried multiple copies of harmful genes and thus became more prone to genetic illnesses. “If you’re inbred, you might have some copies of the same gene that will be deleterious,” Orlando says.

He found that all the horses are inbred, but some are “really, really heavily inbred” while others are far less so.

These two pieces of information could prove vital. “You could start informing the conservation biologists about which one to pick and which one not to pick to breed out for the next generation of those horses,” Orlando says.

Currently, the reintroduction sites in Mongolia are home to 350 horses between them. “Starting from zero individuals 25 years ago, this is success,” Feh says. “But they will need monitoring and indirect assistance from human beings for a long time.” In particular, they rely on help from local herders.

Feh’s goal for Mongolia is to reach three populations of 1500 horses, enough to be robust. Already, the reintroductions have been successful enough for the IUCN to reclassify the horses from “extinct in the wild” to “endangered“.

“When we started, I knew each and every horse by its name, where it came from, where it was born. And each and every one that died was a sort of minor catastrophe,” Walzer says. “Now we really are looking at it on a population level.”

Feh hopes to hand her project over to a local non-governmental organization within the next year. Hustai and Takhin Tal are already being run by Mongolians. With their long history of caring for horses and deep knowledge of their landscape, it seems likely they will prove to be the best possible carers.

“The goal of this project is to have as many Przewalski’s horses as possible,” says Feh. “We want them to survive for the next 3 million years.”

Fossilized hadrosaur dinosaur babies discovery in Mongolia

Perinatal specimens of Saurolophus angustirostris: bones on the right side of the block show a certain degree of articulation, whereas bones on the left are disarticulated. Image credit: Dewaele L et al.

By Sci-News.com:

Paleontologists Find Fossilized Hadrosaur Nest in Mongolia

Oct 15, 2015

An international team of paleontologists from Belgium, France and Mongolia, has unearthed an exceptional block of perinatal specimens (babies) of the giant hadrosaurid dinosaur Saurolophus angustirostris, with associated eggshell fragments, in an area called the Dragon’s Tomb.

The Dragon’s Tomb dinosaur locality was discovered in 1947 in the Nemegt Formation of Mongolia’s Gobi Desert.

The bone bed at this site has yielded numerous articulated skeletons of Saurolophus angustirostris. This dinosaur is particularly abundant in the whole Nemegt Formation, comprising approximately 20 percent of all vertebrate fossils found.

In a new report published in the journal PLoS ONE, paleontologists describe three or four perinatal specimens of Saurolophus angustirostris and two associated eggshell fragments.

The young dinosaurs were likely part of a nest originally located on a river sandbank. The skull length of these Saurolophus angustirostris was around 5 percent that of the largest known S. angustirostris specimens, indicating that these specimens were in the earliest development stages.

“The perinatal bones already resembled Saurolophus angustirostris characteristics, including the upwardly directed snout,” the paleontologists explained.

“The specimens did not yet have the characteristic cranial crest at the top of the head and areas of the skull-the cervical neural arches-were not yet fused, which suggest they may be in the earliest stages of the development of S. angustirostris.”

“The poorly developed crest in Saurolophus angustirostris babies provides evidence of ontogenetic crest growth within the Saurolophini tribe,” said lead author Dr Leonard Dewaele, of Ghent University and the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences.

“The Saurolophini are the only Saurolophinae to bear supra cranial crests as adults.”

The paleontologists can’t tell whether Saurolophus angustirostris babies were still in the eggs or had just hatched when they died, but they were apparently already dead and partly decomposed when they were buried by river sediment during the wet summer season.

The fossilized eggshell fragments associated with the perinatal individuals closely resemble those found from Saurolophus angustirostris relatives in Mongolia.

The team suggests these specimens may bridge a gap in our knowledge of the development of Saurolophus angustirostris.

Bird news update from England

This video says about itself:

Two different Richard’s Pipits (Anthus richardi), probably a pair, plus breeding habitat (foreground) near Zerleg, Khovsgol Aimag, Mongolia, July 2009.

From Peter Allard in England on Twitter:

Breydon Water early morn, 2 Richard’s Pipits along south wall near the lone bush, 2 Rough-leg[ged buzzard]s and a Spotted Red[shank]. Sunny, but very cold.

Mongolian emperors and Chinese art history

This video says about itself:

Kubla Khan by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, reading with text

9 February 2013

Kubla Khan (pron.: /ˌkʊblə ˈkɑːn/) is a poem written by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, completed in 1797 and published in 1816. According to Coleridge‘s Preface to Kubla Khan, the poem was composed one night after he experienced an opium influenced dream after reading a work describing Xanadu, the summer palace of the Mongol ruler and Emperor of China Kublai Khan. Upon waking, he set about writing lines of poetry that came to him from the dream until he was interrupted by a person from Porlock. The poem could not be completed according to its original 200–300 line plan as the interruption caused him to forget the lines. He left it unpublished and kept it for private readings for his friends until 1816 when, on the prompting by George Gordon Byron, it was published.

Some of Coleridge’s contemporaries denounced the poem and questioned his story about its origin. It was not until years later that critics began to openly admire the poem. Most modern critics now view Kubla Khan as one of Coleridge’s three great poems, with The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Christabel. The poem is considered one of the most famous examples of Romanticism in English poetry. A copy of the manuscript is a permanent exhibit at the British Museum in London.

Apart from Coleridge’s poetic imagination, and descriptions by Marco Polo, there is more to say about Khubilai Khan and other Mongolian rulers of medieval China.

From the International Institute for Asian Studies in the Netherlands:

Khubilai Khan’s legacy: Inner Asian Influence on Chinese art

Date & time

19 February 2015, 14.30 – 16.30 hrs


Auditorium, Rijksmuseum
Museumstraat 1, Amsterdam

The programme

14.30 – 15.00 Reception with coffee & tea in the foyer at the Auditorium
15.00 – 15.10 Welcome & Introduction
15.10 – 16.00 Lecture by Professor Morris Rossabi
16.00 – 16.30 Q&A

The lecture

This slide-illustrated presentation challenges the conventional wisdom that portrays the thirteenth-century Mongolians as merely destroyers, killers, rapists, and plunderers. Although the lecture does not minimize the massacres and destruction wrought by the Mongolians, it also reveals their contributions to the arts and culture in China. Khubilai Khan, in particular, supported several of the most prominent Chinese painters, recruited Muslim weavers to add new motifs in Chinese textiles, appointed Mongolians to supervise the spectacular porcelain industry, and commissioned Tibetan and Nepalese painters and artisans to produce portraits of the Imperial family and to construct remarkable buildings in Dadu (or Beijing). Marco Polo, whose book introduced Khubilai to the West, was himself dazzled by the extraordinary art and culture he encountered in Mongol-ruled China.

To be sure, the Mongolians were not the artists and craftsmen, but they acted as sponsors, patrons, and consumers of the arts, thereby performing an invaluable service. Women, especially Khubilai’s wife and great granddaughter, were avid supporters of Chinese art.

The speaker

Morris Rossabi is a historian of China and Inner Asia who conducted his initial research on traditional Chinese foreign relations and on the peoples along China’s borders. He wrote a biography of Khubilai Khan, which has been translated in many languages, including Korean and Russian, and helped to organize exhibitions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, the Cleveland Museum of Art, and the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. He was commissioned to write three chapters for the Cambridge History of China. After serving as a Consultant for the Soros Foundation, he wrote the book Modern Mongolia. The author of numerous articles and speeches, he travels repeatedly to Central Asia and Mongolia, where he teaches courses on Mongolian and East Asian history.


Entrance and registration are free of charge. Please register via: h.m.van.der.minne@iias.nl


For enquiries about the lecture, please contact Ms Heleen van der Minne: h.m.van.der.minne@iias.nl.

Weird dinosaur discovery in Mongolia

This video says about itself:

22 October 2014

This computer animation shows Deinocheirus mirificus walking. Deinocheirus had unusually large forearms and several features that seem cobbled together from a variety of other dinosaurs.

From daily The Independent in Britain:

Fossils reveal very awkward dinosaur once roamed the Earth

Christopher Hooton

Thursday 23 October 2014

Palaeontologists in Mongolia’s Gobi Desert have discovered new fossils that allow them to create a picture of what one of the most unusually-shaped dinosaurs looked like.

Deinocheirus mirificus, which means “unusual horrible hand” in Latin, was a bipedal dinosaur with a hump-back and a big belly that stood almost as tall as the Tyrannosaurus rex.

The fossils were described in a study in the journal Nature, with vertebrate palaeontologist Thomas Holtz, Jr commenting: “This is definitely an unusual animal.

“It had more of a ‘beer belly’ than your typical ornithomimosaur.”

Palaeontologists recovered fossils from three individuals from the species in the Gobi Desert, and were able to combine them with some previously stolen by poachers to create a 95% complete skeleton of the dinosaur.

Its unusual combination of features has scientists puzzled.

“This creature wasn’t built for speed,” said Stephen Brusatte a palaeontologist at the University of Edinburgh. “That’s pretty obvious.”

Deinocheirus had wide hips and large toes, which made for an awkward gait as seen in the animation above.

Stolen Mongolian dinosaur’s head recovered, scientifically important

This video is called Finding gastralia of Deinocheirus – The Land of Dinosaurs, #16, 데이노케이루스 늑골 발견.

From New Scientist:

18:34 12 May 2014 by Jeff Hecht

Palaeontologists have recovered the stolen head and feet of one of the world’s weirdest dinosaurs. The fossils were somehow smuggled out of Mongolia, but have now been returned. They reveal that Deinocheirus, already known for its massive arms and the hump on its back, had a peculiar skull that looked like a cross between an ostrich and a duck.

In 1965, the first remains of Deinocheirus were found in the Gobi desert by Zofia Kielan-Jaworowska, now at the Institute of Paleobiology in Warsaw, Poland. All she found was a pair of 2.4-metre arms with fearsome claws.

These arms were unlike any seen before, and earned the fossil its name, which means “terrible hands”. Kielan-Jaworowska realised the bones belonged to a two-legged theropod, the family that includes Tyrannosaurus rex and birds.

Decades of searching for the rest of the bizarre beast yielded nothing until 2006, when the Korea-Mongolia International Dinosaur Project found a 70-million-year-old skeleton in the Gobi desert. Another followed in 2009. Between them they contained most of the major bones, except the head and feet.

Last year the researchers described Deinocheirus as an ornithomimosaur, or “ostrich dinosaur“, a group that includes the Gallimimus featured in Jurassic Park. But at 12 metres long, it was similar in size to T. rex, far larger than any other ornithomimosaur, and had a camel-like hump or sail on its back. However, without the head and feet they were missing key information, including what it ate – although gizzard stones in its stomach hint that it ate plants.

Fossil smugglers

Meanwhile François Escuillié, director of fossil dealership Eldonia in Gannat, France, spotted a strange skull and associated feet in a private European collection. In 2011, he asked Pascal Godefroit of the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences in Brussels to take a look. Suspecting the bones might be the missing pieces of Deinocheirus, the two checked with the Korean-Mongolian team and found that the skull fit perfectly with the body found in 2006.

It remains unknown how the fossils were smuggled out of Mongolia and made their way to Europe. The collector has not been identified.

Escuillié eventually acquired the fossil and donated it to the Royal Belgian Institute. Then, on 1 May, he and Godefroit presented it to the Mongolian government. The bones will be deposited at the Central Museum of Mongolian Dinosaurs in Ulaanbaatar, along with the rest of the Deinocheirus skeleton, and a Tarbosaurus that was also previously stolen.

The skull shows Deinocheirus was even weirder than palaeontologists had thought. “It looked to me like the product of a secret love affair between a hadrosaur and Gallimimus,” says Thomas Holtz of the University of Maryland in College Park. In overall body shape, Deinocheirus was similar to ornithomimosaurs like Gallimimus. The hadrosaur link comes from its snout.

Hadrosaurs are known as “duck-billed dinosaurs” because their snouts were long and flattened. Deinocheirus‘s mouth has a similar duck-billed shape.

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Finding fossils in Mongolia

From the American Museum of Natural History in the USA, about this video:

Last summer, a team led by the Museum’s Provost of Science Michael Novacek and Paleontology Division Chair Mark Norell headed to the Gobi for the joint American Museum of Natural History/Mongolian Academy of Sciences expedition. The group included Aki Watanabe, one of Mark Norell’s students at the Museum’s Richard Gilder Graduate School, who was recently chosen as a beta-tester for Google Glass and who recorded video on Glass throughout the trip.

In this video, Watanabe takes us with him as he prospects for fossils in the Gobi Desert to collect and bring back to the Museum. Along the way, he shows the tools that he uses to find fossils, and how you can tell what is real fossil and what isn’t.

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