Digging into the past helps palaeontology students uncover an exciting future

Claire Halliday
Claire Halliday

Three weeks in the Gobi Desert excavating dinosaur bones and visiting the ‘Dragon’s Tomb’ – sound like fun? You bet, says University of New England (UNE) dinosaur expert Dr Phil Bell and his PhD student Nathan Enriquez, who recently returned from an expedition to the ‘dinosaur mecca’ in remote southern Mongolia.

The pair joined palaeontologists from Mongolia, Canada and America on the barren flanks of Nemegt Mountain and spent just over a week jackhammering a 6-metre cliff-face, followed by several days of hand-tool excavations to collect the remains of a giant sauropod that roamed the landscape 70 million years ago.

The Nemegtosaurus – first discovered by Polish palaeontologists in 1970 – was a long-necked, herbivorous dinosaur more than 10 metres long, and is one of many species found in this renowned deposit.

“It is one of the best places in the world to study dinosaur ecology because everything is there – from the giant sauropods to the smallest mammals and lizards and everything in between,” said Dr Bell, whose primary research interest is dinosaur skin.

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“It was a good place for dinosaurs to live and an even better place for them to die,” Dr Bell says. “Back in the Cretaceous, it was covered in seasonal wetlands and animals congregated during the summer monsoon. But the dry winters were very hard and many of the animals would then die. Spring floods buried their skeletons, but now the rock has been exposed again, for us to come and find their bones.”

Finding fossils fill the research gaps

Unfortunately, despite their hard work, the team could only recover some isolated bones from the animal’s lower leg, including an ankle bone, shin bone, calf bone and toe bone.

“It wasn’t the complete skeleton we were hoping for, but this is the only known skeleton of this particular species and previously we only had its skull, so every fossil helps us to fill in the missing gaps,” says Dr Bell.

But uncovering the lower jaw of a bone-headed pachycephalosaur and “thousands upon thousands” of dinosaur footprints so beautifully preserved in the rock that they contained the impressions of skin, scales and claws were, Dr Bell says, some other exciting finds.

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By gathering more information about each species, including the nature of their skin, a clearer picture about what they looked like can be formed.  In the best cases, such finds can also offer clues about how they might have behaved and interacted with each other and their environment.

“Deep footprints with this level of detail are really important for understanding how the soft tissues looked on these dinosaurs,” Dr Bell says.

Skin preservation reveals secrets from the past

For third-year PhD student Nathan Enriquez, the opportunity to visit the famous ‘Dragon’s Tomb’ – a locality about the size of a tennis court that contains a herd of beautifully preserved hadrosaurs named Saurolophus – was a career highlight. He is also studying the morphology of its skin – how it grows and how it is preserved.

“Skin preservation is traditionally patchy but here there are blocks of skin lying around everywhere, which was amazing to see in the field,” Mr Enriquez says. “It was the trip of a lifetime. Very few people get to visit this remote part of Mongolia and it’s something I will remember for the rest of my life.”

The varied conditions of the dig were challenging – ranging from hot days in the low-30s to freezing temperatures – but Dr Bell wouldn’t change the experience.

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“With every new discovery, we learn something new,” he says.

A lifelong passion for palaeontology

For Dr Bell, palaeontology is a passion that was first sparked before he even started school, at four-years-old.

“Once I discovered dinosaurs as a kid, I was hooked. There was never a question in my mind of what I wanted to do,” he told EducationDaily.

His pathway to UNE came via a three-year working stint in Canada following his PhD, when he was eager to “find a way back home and bring some of the knowledge I’d gained to teach Aussie students”.

“Fortunately for me, UNE offered me a job,” he says.

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No matter how many times he visits the Gobi Desert, Dr Bell says “I feel like I’ve won the lottery”.

“It’s such a special place, not just for the palaeontology, but because of the people and the landscape as well. To have this opportunity meant we were able to pick up on work that had been put on hold since 2016, so it was really important,” he told EducationDaily.

Back in Australia, he works mostly on sites in Lightning Ridge and in south-east Queensland.

“There aren’t many dinosaur localities in Australia, but we’re working to improve that.”

Describing each new discovery as the most exciting, Dr Bell says working as a palaeontologist means “you’re always looking for that next big thing”.

“The footprints in Mongolia were like that: seeing the skin for the first time was a real buzz. You can spend days walking without find anything and then you walk around a bend or over a rise and ‘bang’ there it is,” he says. “It’s a great feeling.”

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Walking in the footprints of dinosaurs

PhD student Mr Enriquez shares Dr Bell’s experience of being captured by the wonder of palaeontology at a young age, when a TV program called Walking with Dinosaurs was released in 1999.

“This interest was maintained through toys, books, documentaries, and fossil collecting all the way through my childhood and schooling years until I eventually got to study it at university,” Mr Enriquez told EducationDaily.

Scientifically, the importance of what he helped find on the Gobi Desert trip is “enormous”. “Amazing new discoveries are being made here every year that fieldwork takes place, and this trip was no exception,” he told EducationDaily. “I anticipate several academic papers will eventually be published on the material that we found. On a personal level, it ticked off many of my ‘bucket list’ aspirations. The Gobi is such a classic hunting ground for dinosaurs, and after growing up seeing it depicted in numerous documentaries, finally being there in person and looking for dinosaurs was surreal and unforgettable. We had such a great group of people to share it with too.”

If all goes according to plan, Mr Enriquez says, he should complete his PhD at UNE at the end of 2024. “After that, I am pretty open to a variety of career opportunities – whether that be research/academia, curatorial work, or something completely different, but I hope I will still be working with fossils, wherever I end up.”

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Claire Halliday has an extensive career as a full-time writer - across book publishing, copywriting, podcasting and feature journalism - for more than 25 years. She lives in Melbourne with children, two border collies and a grumpy Burmese cat. Contact: claire.halliday[at]brandx.live