Mongolian Beef Tips

Just when I thought that the dinosaur book craze had died, a couple of new books arrived on the scene. The first one of these is Dinosaurs of the Flaming Cliffs by Michael Novacek. The 376 page, $24.95 hard back was published by Anchor books in September of 1996. Novacek is Senior Vice President and Provost of Science in addition to being Curator of Vertebrate Paleontology at the American Museum of Natural History. This book recounts the story of the recent American Museum of Natural History expeditions to Mongolia.

To begin, a bit of introductory information is in order. During the 1920's, Roy Chapman Andrews, at the direction of Henry Fairfield Osborn of the American Museum of Natural History, made a number of expeditions into central Asia and Mongolia in search of the ancestors of modern man. He didn't find the fossils of early man as Osborn had hoped, but did find dinosaur eggs and skeletal remains. Andrews wrote about these expeditions in The New Conquest of Central Asia in 1932. As an aside, Andrews' books about his adventures are quite interesting and worth your time.

The Central Asiatic Expeditions of Andrews were the last time American expeditions had been permitted into Mongolia until the ones presented here by Novacek. In the intervening years, Chinese-Swedish, Russian, Polish-Mongolian and Mongolian-Russian teams have carried out paleontological research in Mongolia. These latest American expeditions, again led by the American Museum of Natural History, cover six collecting seasons beginning in 1990.

Dinosaurs of the Flaming Cliffs is divided into eleven chapters with five specifically covering the expedition years from 1990 through 1995. These chapters are alternated with chapters presenting a wide array of supporting materials including: history of other Gobi expeditions and their findings; geologic time; evolution of life on earth; taxonomic classification of animals; paleogeography and plate tectonics; paleoclimatology; dinosaur development from egg to adult; "warm bloodedness"; sexual differences in dinosaur skeletons; and of course, extinction. This list may seem long, but believe me, it is not all inclusive. Novacek has blended these and other topics into the story of the expeditions to give a more complete picture for the reader.

Besides the many dinosaur discoveries, even more exciting discoveries of Cretaceous mammal remains were found. These expeditions not only explored the classic sites known to previous expeditions but also found some of their own. It was at one of these that they were able to find some of the best mammal fossils. What was the big deal? Most mammals of this age are known from teeth or fragmentary skulls at best; Novacek's team found complete skeletons!

One of the amazing dinosaur finds was of an Oviraptor curled up protecting her nest of eggs! This discovery is one which has helped clear up the egg mystery from the Roy Chapman Andrews expeditions. You may recall that the eggs found by these earlier expeditions had been identified as Protoceratops eggs primarily because Protoceratops were the most abundant body fossils found. Also, Oviraptor (egg stealer) got its name from those expeditions because its fossils were found in association with "Protoceratops" eggs.

The logistical parts of the book are just as fascinating as the paleontological portions. It is eye opening to read of the political problems involved in setting up an expedition in such a remote area. This is far from the relative comfort of expeditions you may have read about to more inhabited areas; lack of fuel, lack of drinking water, food shortages, or unreliable vehicles become life or death problems. On the food front, and the reason for my "Mongolian Beef Tips" subtitle, was a comment by Novacek during one expedition wherein fresh food was not available and they ate the local food. It seems that true Mongolian Beef Tips (and most everything else they eat) is mostly fat and not at all like that served in our area restaurants (at least where I eat).

In summary, I liked Dinosaurs of the Flaming Cliffs and can recommend it to all dinosaur fans. The toughest part is trying to read the local place and people names but, unless you read aloud, it doesn't really matter how you think these names are pronounced. Novacek did an excellent job with technical terms by either defining them or not using them. I think that it is difficult for some scientists to write a book for general readers because their daily work is so involved with the technical jargon of their field. In this regard, I feel that Dinosaurs of the Flaming Cliffs is very well done.

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