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GOBI DESERT

Unlike the romanticized image of deserts with sweeping sand dunes, most of the landscape of The Gobi Desert consists of rocky, hard-packed terrain. A clue to the historical perception of the Gobi as an inhospitable region is found in its name, which derives from the Mongolian word for "very large and dry."

The Gobi is a rain shadow desert formed by the Himalaya range, which prevents rain-carrying clouds from reaching it. It is roughly crescent-shaped, lying between the Altai and Khangai mountain ranges in the north and the Pei Mountains in the south. The eastern side of the desert is fringed by the Sinkiang region, a large basin that extends towards the Plateau of Tibet. Towards the west of the Gobi lies the Greater Khingan Range.

The Gobi occupies a vast arc of land 1,000 miles (1,600 km) long and 300 to 600 miles (500 to 1,000 km) wide, with an estimated area of 500,000 square miles (1,300,000 square km).

 

WHERE AND WHAT IS GOBI DESERT?

Physiography - The Gobi consists of the Gaxun, Junggar, and Trans-Altai Gobi in the west, the Eastern, or Mongolian, the Gobi in the center and east, and the Alxa Plateau in the south. 


The Trans-Altai Gobi is situated between the eastern spurs of the Mongolian Altai and Gobi Altai mountains to the north and east, respectively, and the Bei Mountains to the south. The plain is elevated, sharp, and rugged. Alongside the plains and the isolated group of low, rounded hills is a fairly extensive mountain area that extends more than six miles (10km) out into the plain. The mountains are barren and broken up by dry ravines.



The Eastern Gobi (where you will travel with us) is similar to the western regions, with elevations varying from 2,300 to 5,000 feet (700 to 1,500 meters), but it receives somewhat more precipitation—up to 8 inches (200 mm) per year—though it lacks significant rivers. The underground aquifers have relatively abundant quantities of water and are only partly mineralized. They are also near the surface, feeding small lakes and springs. The vegetation, however, is sparse, consisting mainly of herb wormwood in coarse, grayish-brown soil. In the moister depressions, there are the usual salt marshes and grassy swamps. In the northern and eastern outlying regions, where more precipitation occurs, the landscape of the desert gradually becomes less harsh, or sometimes even steppe-like.



Climate - The climate is acutely continental and dry: winter is severe, spring is dry and cold, and summer is warm. The annual temperature range is considerable, with average lows in January reaching −40 °F (−40 °C) and average highs in July climbing to 113 °F (45 °C); daily temperature ranges also can be quite large. The annual total precipitation varies from less than 2 inches (50 mm) in the west to more than 8 inches (200 mm) in the northeast. 


Gobi Soil - The drainage of the desert is largely underground; surface rivers have little constant flow. Mountain streams are confined to the Gobi’s fringes and even then quickly dry up as they disappear into the loose soil or the salty, enclosed depressions. Many rivers flow only in summer. On the other hand, subterranean water is widespread and of sufficient quality to allow cattle raising. The soil of the Gobi is chiefly grayish brown and brown carbonaceous, gypseous, coarse gravel, often combined with sandy salt marshes and takyr.


Sands of the Gobi Deserts - Despite the fact that much of the Gobi desert consists of gravel or rocky terrain, the few sand dunes that do exist continue to draw scientific inquiry and tourists alike. There are two major theories about the origins of the sand dunes in Mongolia. One theory, which is the more popular theory among scientists, states that the sands were carried into the desert on wind currents, much the way that water can carry sand. This theory has gained popularity as science has been able to track wind currents in the region, and the sand dunes have been proven to have developed along traditional wind paths. While this is the more predominant theory, an alternative idea exists that claims the sand dunes were originally a product of water erosion.


FLAMING CLIFF OR BAYANZAG

Bayanzag is better known by its English name, the Flaming Cliff.  The local name Bayanzag means “rich of saxaul tree” - Bayan for rich and Zag for saxaul.  Three kilometers north of the cliff is what Gobi people call Forest of Zag. This forest is nothing like the forests in the central or northern Mongolia. But for the Gobi, it is the largest area covered by saxaul trees - trees that are about 200 hundred years old and just several meters tall. The saxaul forest, located at the lowest area within the region, is primarily fed through summer rains which melt spring snow and generate flash floods. Mineral-rich water from the Gurvan Saikhan Mountain, Arts Bogd Mountain, and the northern hills flows into this lower basin, creating the richest soil in the Gobi and also feeding the oasis-like area of Bayanzag. 


South of Bayanzag is called the Flaming Cliff, thanks to Roy Chapman Andrews, an American explorer who came to Mongolia in the 1920s. Flaming Cliff is another creation of flash floods.  Water in combination with strong west and north winds has eroded the cliffs.  It has taken time, but over the last 15 million years, the land was broken to show several layers of red tolgod. The iron dioxide in the soil makes the cliff look orange to red when reflecting the sunlight. Roy Chapman Andrews, amazed by the beauty of the red glowing hills blazed by the setting sun, decided to call it Flaming Cliff.

What makes the area even more famous is the number of dinosaur fossils found in the area. Eighty million years ago, this lowland was covered by large forests with great lakes. It was also home to the last remaining dinosaurs living 65 million years ago. The dinosaurs here were more evolved because of the decreasing quality of their habitat: they were faster, smarter, and smaller. Protoceratops andrewsi is the symbol of the area and often compared to sheep herds of its time. Tarbosaur and Velociraptor, the predators, survived as evidenced through fossil remains.


The area is also famous in the history of paleontology, the spot where the first-ever dinosaur egg was found. The Flaming Cliff has also been proven to be the refuge for the Oviraptor, who came to the area to build their nests and hatch young.

The Bayanzag area today is the grazing pasture for Bactrian camels, as much as it is a rich source of saxaul trees and medicinal caragana bushes. When the summer is “good”, the whole area is covered by nutritional onions and leeks. Herders around the area gather their camel herds and sheep and goat flocks to graze on the bounty.  Farmers also grow vegetables, including tomatoes, cucumbers, root veggies, peppers, even watermelons near the natural springs close to the area.

Bayanzag is a historically important area for locals, as it has recently been shown to be the main tea route replacement for the infamous Silk Road. When the Silk Road was blocked by the constant war during the 17th century, the route was changed to the south without passing through Mongolia. A new tea route was then established between southern and western Mongolians and China and Tibet. That is the route through the Bayanzag area, and it follows water sources and the wells.

YOLIIN AM OR VULTURE VALLEY

Yoliin Am or Vulture Valley is named after the soaring lammergeyers that reside on the topmost rocks of the basalt canyon. The canyon is renowned for its glacier, a sinuous sheet of ice several meters thick. The ice survives well into July thanks to the deep shade of mountains averaging 6000 ft (2000m) above sea level. The Yol Valley is within the mighty Zuun Saikhan Nuruu subrange, or to locals, the Eastern Beauty.


The Gurvan Saikhan Mountains and its subranges were formed when the Indian and Asian tectonic plates collided, creating the Himalayas. Three lengthy mountains appear to be mounted on each other, East beauty being the highest, followed by the Middle Beauty and West Beauty. Of them all, East Beauty, with its high elevation and deep canyon with cool shade, creates a land of rich flora, home to many animals.

A visit to the Yoliin Am starts with the small museum to learn about the Gurvan Saikhan National Park. The stuffed lammergeyer or the bearded vulture is by the entrance. This mount provides a good idea of the bird’s wingspan, which stretches to 2.5 meters (8.2 ft). Beneath the exhibit is prey scavenged by the lammergeyer.  These include rodents of the National park, as well as a skunk, polecat, corsac fox, badgers, hares, and rabbits. The local museum highlights the Gobi bear, wild Bactrian camel, snow leopard, ibex, wild Argali sheep, wild ass, and black-tailed gazelles, all of which are indigenous to the region.  Most are in danger of extinction.


Driving deeper into East Beauty, the valley narrows as rocky peaks get higher.  The dominant peak stands highest at 2700 m (8858 ft) above sea level. The hillsides are covered in patches of dark green. Dwarf juniper, along with wild rhubarb creates colorful patterns. The beginning of the trekking route leads to the natural spring, which funnels down into the narrowest part of the gorge, perpetually in the shade - one reason why the ice remains, even during the heat of the summer. The first snowfall is as early as September; by October the spring starts to freeze at night. Over winter snow and ice pile up, creating a large ice cover 50 cm to 3 meters (1½ - 10 ft) thick. In May, none of the Ovoos, stone piles along the hiking routes are visible. They are buried by ice. In some parts of East Beauty ice reaches 10 meters (32 ft). In the Yol Valley, however, ice is gone by the end of July, usually, after heavy rains wash the ice down to the flash beds, then to the steppe, which eventually feeds the growth of wild onions and leeks on the Gobi desert basin floor.

As more and more people visit the valley, the ovoos are getting bigger and taller as each traveler contributes to the pile with their stones, following the ancient tradition. Originally, ovoos were built on the tops of sacred mountains, marking a special area where a shaman or lama connected with heaven and its spirits. Now, ovoos more likely indicate a border or a road sign, where everyone drives with their intuition and knowledge of the landscape.

The basalt rock formations of the Yol Valley are impressive and picturesque, making it one of the must-see places in the country. The geologists estimated the age of the basalt at 500 million years, although mountains were formed much later ~ 20-15 million years ago.

In terms of wildlife that inhabit the valley, the canyon represents a vertical portrayal of the various birds, animals, and their territories. The topmost peaks are inhibited by the lammergeyers, black vultures, Himalayan griffon, and golden eagles while saker falcons and kestrels hunt along the lower hilltops down to the land of scurrying pikas. The craggy tops are also home to wild ibex - well known for their climbing skills. Ibex graze in the grassy patches among the rocks, steal down to the spring early in the morning for a cool sip of water, then head back to the upper reaches for safety, rest and food. During summer and after the mating season, male ibexes tend to live separately, rather than in a herd. Females tend their kids and young males prepare for leadership opportunities. Finally, as the season progresses, the animals group together, spending the harsh winter as a herd.


The lower zone in this valley is the place where swallows, martins, sparrows, finches, and redstarts feast, each in their own way. Swallows and martins are fast and furious. There is only a glimpse of the shiny dark blue back, trying to catch as many insects and flies over the valley’s stream as is possible. The rock sparrows, with their yellow bills and black and white wings, are on the ground picking up seeds and berries together with Mongolian finches, identified by the reddish stripes along with the wings. It is tricky to climb down the narrowest part of the gorge. It slopes steeply down into the water. It is so rewarding though. Be patient and look closely: You will see the wallcreeper, a small dark bird with fanciful red-spotted butterfly-like wings and tail. When this bird is creeping in the crevices of the dark gray basalt rock, it is well-camouflaged, but once it flies, it certainly is one of the prettiest birds in the country.

KHONGOR SAND DUNE

The Gobi Desert is often mistakenly thought to be covered completely by sand dunes. In fact, only 5 percent of the Gobi is sand dunes. The Khongor Sand Dune is the highest and longest sand dune in the country. Khongor means buckskin, for its bright cream color. However, the dune changes its color with the sunlight, having a reddish hue during the sunset and sunrise. Midday, from afar, it can even look as white as snow.


Khongor Sand Dune is also known as the Singing Sand Dune.  As the wind sweeps the sand down the dune, it makes a humming noise.  A French team explained this phenomenon occurred because a thin surface coating of slate over the sand grains caused the sand to make a resonant sound. The sound is also attributed to the heat, the weather conditions in the desert, and the avalanche effect caused by the harmoniously moving sand particles. The singing dune is in the western region, where the dune is highest.

Khongor Sand Dune stretches for 180 km (112 mi) from west to southeast, in between the Zuulun and Sevrei Mountains. The highest peak reaches up to 300 meters (984 ft) and spreads as wide as 15 km (9 mi). At the foothill of the highest sand dune, there is an oasis of saxaul trees, caragana bushes, bristles grasses, wild irises, and even some poplar trees. The subterranean river gurgles up from the ground in the swampy land at the foot of the dune and skirts along the dune, in some places having small canyon-like cliffs. The dune itself has attractive curves with sharp edges, artistically managed by the wind.

There are different theories about how the sand dunes were formed. The first of the theories declared the dune was formed at the bottom of the sea, where the Gobi was started millions of years ago. Now, however, the belief is that the dunes are relatively young - about 2 million years old.  Sand is blown along with the wind; the wind is blocked by the two majestic mountain ranges in the north and south of the existing dune and the sand is then deposited between them.  The lower area, where wind whistles relentlessly, is also an area of flash floods; floods carrying pebbles, gravel, and sand grains and finally releasing them when reaching plants. The snowfall at the dunes is as much as in the mountains.  During the winter, there can be as much as 50 cm (19 ½ in).

The area is good grazing land for camels during the winter. Sheep and goats tend to go to the mountains or the plain in between. Gobi people spend their summer by the sand dune relying on the Seruun Bulag oasis. The temperature by the dune during summer is often 5-10 degrees higher and Gobi people hope for the wind to cool the area. In winter, the wind makes things worse and locals who would happily use the snow for water during that time, have moved up into the mountains, into more wind-shielded areas.

The sand dune itself is not supportive of a rich fauna. However, during a dry spring, wild asses will come to the spring for water. They will use their incredible skills to dig for water. But as the summer crowd moves into Khongoryn Els for the season, the wild asses will run away from the oases to the other side of the dune; run toward the steppes and deserted land.

BACTRIAN CAMELS /CAMELUS BACTRIANUS/

The two-humped Bactrian camel is an important livestock member for nomadic Mongolians of the Gobi Desert. In addition to providing meat, milk, wool, and leather, they are a significant means of transportation for freight caravans and seasonal ger moves.

  • 10% of all camels in the world are two-humped Bactrian camels

  • 90% of Bactrian camels are found in Mongolia

  • 15 people share a camel in Mongolia (20 times more than the world average)

  • In Mongolia, 469 thousand camels are less than 1% (0.7 %) of the total herd composition, including the ungulates sheep, goats, horses, cattle and camels.


Camels live in the Gobi along with their ancestry – wild Bactrian camels or Camelus ferus. Rock paintings around the Gobi area confirm Mongolians domesticated camels 4000-5000 years ago. 

Both wild and two-humped Bactrian camels share adaptations for living in the desert area.  The large body is surprisingly agile.  With the long neck, good eyesight, and split lip, the camel easily finds and picks up the short and scarce Gobi grass, while walking! Because the camel’s mouth and tongue are so leathery, and the lips are thick, moisture loss when foraging is minimal.  Camels rarely sweat; they have no sweat glands, per se. Thick hide and fur protect against the desert sun and heat and help conserve body fluids.  Exhaled water vapor becomes trapped within the nose, then reabsorbed, another desert survival mechanism.  But the two humps, which are mounds of fatty tissue, are metabolized as needed, thus providing energy and fluids. This allows the camel to go without water for as long as a week. Wild camels are rumored to survive up to a month!


When it comes to grazing, camels are not picky. They eat and digest any grass, thorny or not. This helps them to maintain a magnificent body figure – standing 2.1 m (7ft) tall, 225-350cm (7.3-11.4 ft) long and weighing in at 528-621 kg (1164-1369 lbs). The more common colors in camels are dark brown and reddish-brown. There are white camels, estimated to be 20% of the population.

Camels mature at 6-7 years. Females have young every two years; gestation is 380-400 days. A camel bull is selected for every 25 -30 females. Typically, a camel herd, led by a bull or two, is comprised of 30% mature females, 30% young (colts), and 30% castrated males.

Camels provide wool and long hair used to spin good quality yarn and to make felt. Mature camels provide as much as 5.2-8 kg (11.4-17.6 lbs) of wool yearly, as well as some cashmere, hairs softer than wool.

Camel milk is used to produce a special khoormog tea (a fermented yogurt-like-drink) and hard, dry cheese (afig). During the 17 months of nursing, a camel provides 300 l (80 gal) of milk.

Camel meat doesn’t have a particular taste, lending itself nicely to the addition of wild onion or leek spices. The meat provides 2690 kcal and is made into jerky for the summer days.

Gobi people make quality ropes from camel hide. A camel hide, when stretched, covers 4-5 sq m (43-53 sq ft).

Camels were used in trade caravans all around the country.  A single camel can carry a 200-240 kg (440-530 lbs) load for up to 30-40 km (18-25 miles) a day. Using a cart, the load can be doubled.  Camels are naturally calm, easily trained, and quickly adapt to everyday work regimens. For Gobi people, the camel is a favored herd animal, and with its gentle nature and soft heart, a reliable companion for the long road.


The Story of the Weeping Camel (Tears of the Camel) is a famous documentary in which a beautiful white colt, as the leading actor, showcases the everyday life of Gobi people.

Gobi people celebrate the Camel Festival every March. Over a thousand camels come from all around the Gobi Desert for the camel parade, where people and camels alike, dress in their best. Camels race for the trophy, enter beauty contests showing off their fury winter coat and proudly standing humps, and compete in camel polo.

KHAVTSGAIT PETROGLYPH

The Gurvan Saikhan Mountain area was the area human settlements flourished during the Neolithic and Bronze age eras. Several areas are noted for ancient petroglyphs, flintstone villages, and ancient burial sites. Khavtsgait Petroglyph is the largest collection of rock petroglyphs on the mountain. The whole side of the mountain is covered by hundreds of animal depictions including ibex and gazelles. These animals were roaming the mountains and steppes during those eras.

  • On several rocks, ibex is chased by a horse-mounted archer, shooting from a running horse.

  • One shows the hunter chasing the ibex towards a lord or a king, who is differentiated by a tall hat and elegant quivers. 

  • On the same rock, the kings were sitting on a higher, throne-like seat, being offered gifts by visitors, carved to be standing lower. The men and women standing behind the king, along with the visitors, seemed to be slightly bowing their heads.


The Late Neolithic is considered the time tribes had leaders. Leaders earned more and fought for better material things.

  • On the left corner of one rock, there are ger shaped mounds, a scene that has not yet been explained clearly by archaeologists.

  • Another rock shows what appears to be an agricultural-type cart, based on similar rock petroglyphs found in other parts of the country. 

  • There is a petroglyph of a two-humped camel with a rider sitting between the two humps.


These tribes survived by hunting, but from the petroglyph, it appears they had domesticated camels, horses, and dogs.

  • Hunting prey painted included wild Argali sheep – a depiction on the first rock, on the hill side while walking up the trail. The Argali seems to be running forward. The artists had advanced skills to create the animal’s motion so beautifully without compromising the realism.

  • Deers were carved with precise details and yet with slightly exaggerated antlers through intricate lines and curves.

  • Wolves and dogs were differentiated by the tails, one hooked upward; horses were etched to have ground-reaching tails and a bigger body.

  • The man’s image on one particular rock is clearly different from the woman’s, mainly by the hanging. These are among the mares and stallions.

The gender differentiating petroglyphs, drawn with sketchy and thicker lines, are more faded compared to the intricate designs found in some petroglyphs. This seems to indicate petroglyphs were done in different time periods.

The search for new discoveries at the top of the hill seems to go on forever. Despite the difficulty of the scree track, more “artist rocks” can be found. The whole area is peaceful and inspiring. The endless vastness of the Gobi, the floating lakes created by the distant mirage, the dreamy haze over the flowing hills, the shapes of fluffy clouds might have been the muse of the artists.

 

THE GOBI DESERT WAS HOME TO MANY DINOSAURS

Mongolia's famous Gobi Desert once was a haven for plants and animals alike. One of the species that used to roam the Gobi was dinosaurs. According to the Natural History Museum of the UK, 47 different species of dinosaurs have been found Mongolia. Ranging from Mammal-eating velociraptors, lizard-hipped sauropods, and spike-armored ankylosaurs could have been spotted roaming in what are now the Martian red sandstone spires of Bayanzag's Flaming Cliffs. It was here, nearly a hundred years ago, that the world's first dinosaur egg nests were found by American scientist Roy Chapman Andrews - the whip-wielding, trilby-wearing inspiration for Indiana Jones.

A NEW DINOSAUR IS FOUND IN THE GOBI DESERT

Gobihadros mongoliensis

In April of 2019, scientists have described a new species of basal hadrosauroid from the Baynshiree Formation of the central and eastern Gobi Desert (Mongolia).  It has been named Gobihadros mongoliensis.  At approximately three metres long, this cow-sized, Ornithischian may not be the most impressive dinosaur to have been found, but its discovery is significant for vertebrate paleontologists. G. mongoliensis is the first non-hadrosaurid from the Late Cretaceous of central Asia known from an almost complete, articulated skull and post cranial material.

All of the fossil material is about 85 million years old, dating to the Santonian, which falls in the middle of the Late Cretaceous. The Santonian appears to be a key time for hadrosaur diversity and dispersal, but paleontologist didn't have many high-quality fossils from certain branches of the duck-billed dino family tree. So Gobihadros is important to learn more about the dinosaurs of the time.


 A brief refresher on duck-billed dinos: The known model of a hadrosaur was a large-bodied herbivore notable for its specialized jaws and teeth. The front of the snout was flattened and behind it were teeth efficient at grinding the plant matter it ate. It had a bulky torso (gotta digest all that fibrous plant matter somewhere) and a stiff tail. Once thought to be bipedal, hadrosaurs are now believed to have walked on all fours, though some species may have taken the occasional awkward two-legged gambol. More evolved, or derived, hadrosaurs often had elaborate crests and other headgear, the purpose of which remains under debate. 

A phylogenetic assessment places Gobihadros outside of the Hadrosauridae, the family of dinosaurs commonly referred to as the duck-billed dinosaurs.  Gobihadros most certainly had a broad beak, very typical of a duck-billed dinosaur. In recent years, many new hadrosaurid species have been filling in this picture, but few complete remains are known from the early part of the Late Cretaceous, which is when the group originated.

The anatomical analysis revealed that Gobihadros mongoliensis doesn’t quite fit into Hadrosauridae, but is a very close cousin, making it the first such dinosaur is known from complete remains from the Late Cretaceous of Central Asia.

The fossil material was collected over a period of several years from the sandstone and mudstone deposits from a number of sites associated with the Baynshire Formation.  The dinosaur was described from two superbly preserved specimens, a complete and uncrushed skull (MPC-D100/763) and the holotype, which consists of an almost complete skull and postcranial skeleton found largely in an articulated state.  Although, the exact date of the Baynshire Formation remains open to debate, recent studies place the sediments in the early Late Cretaceous (Cenomanian-Santonian faunal stages).


The scientific paper: “A New Hadrosauroid (Dinosauria: Ornithopoda) from the Late Cretaceous Baynshire Formation of the Gobi Desert (Mongolia)” by Khishigjav Tsogtbaatar, David B. Weishampel, David C. Evans and Mahito Watabe published in PLOS One.

 

BIRDS OF THE GOBI DESERT

And over this broad expanse of ‘desert’, there, silhouetted against the crisp blue sky, one sees a lammergeier, then black vultures and Euroasian griffons, riding thermals and relying on sight, not smell, for carrion.
There are over 200 bird species native to the area.  Steppe Eagles and Golden Eagles, who appear small compared to the vultures; the Black Kite (common throughout Mongolia); and Saker and Peregrine falcons, harriers, kestrels, and merlins – all may be seen in this Gurvan Saikhan ( "three beauties") mountain range, named for three subranges: Baruun Saikhany Nuruu (the Western Beauty), Dund Saikhany Nuruu (the Middle Beauty) and Zuun Saikhany Nuruu (the Eastern Beauty). The steep canyon Yolyn Am, is found in Zuun Saikhany Nuruu and surrounded by the Gobi desert.
Raptors are not the only bird type to inhabit such extreme terrain. Elegant black necked Demoiselle Cranes, seemingly out of place in the desert, hunt lizards and insects on the open gravel plains during the heat of the summer. Smaller birds include choughs, hoopoes, doves, larks, swifts, swallows, sandpipers, finches, buntings, warblers, sparrows, and so many more!
Some are resident; most are migrant - either passing through with the season, or using the Gobi as a breeding ground. One conspicuous resident, Pallas sand grouse, can be seen early on summer mornings at springs. Flying as fast as falcons, they come to drink but also to carry water back to their nestlings in specially adapted breast feathers.
The birds inhabiting this immense patchwork of desert basins and mountain ranges, sheer cliffs and green valley, rocky terrain and sparse vegetation, have unique stories, like the Pallas sand grouse.  For the patient and observant, this Mongolian bird watching will be a once in a life time experience.

LAMMERGEYER (GYPAETUS BARBATUS)

Near threatened

The Yol, or bearded vulture, or lammergeyer appears to be one intense bird. It lives on a steady diet of bones and actively colors its feathers blood red, giving it the reputation of one of the most “metal birds” (albeit, a little rusted) in the animal kingdom.


This bird has a wingspan of 2.3–2.8 m (7.6–9.3 ft) and weighs 4 ½ – 7 ½ kg (10 –17 lb).  Females are slightly larger than males.


When seen in flight, they are unmistakable because of the long, “narrow” wings. The flat lozenge-shaped tail (unusual in birds of prey) is longer than the width of the wing.

These giant birds are 94–125 cm (37–49 in) long; they waddle when they walk, and they appear to have a hunchback.

Lammergeyers do not have a bald head, rather have a forehead with creamy colored feathers with a black stripe through the eye, an orange spot under the neck, and a black beard.

Meaning of orange.


The Lammergeyer’s body is generally pure white or buff until cosmetics are applied. Lammergeyers spread soil containing iron oxide onto their body with their claws, then preen for about an hour to ensure a bright orange glow and fiery appearance. Captive birds also partake in this behavior, which suggests the activity is instinctual, not learned. The orange coloration doesn't have any practical purpose; it certainly doesn't make for good camouflage (though the birds have no natural predators).

The main diet is bone marrow!  The bird’s diet is 70-90% bone. Its stomach acid has a pH of about 1 allowing dense material to be digested in under 24 hours.


The lammergeyer is a scavenger.  After finding a picked-over carcass, the bird will drop it from 50–150 m (160–490 ft) above the ground to shatter it into swallowable pieces. The carcasses it hauls into the air can even weigh almost as much as the bird itself.

Yol is monogamous.  Lammergeyers put on quite an aerial display during breeding. The birds tumble and spiral, and lock talons with each other as they fall to earth.  The birds usually don't lay more than three eggs in a stick nest, which is reused year after year and is massive. Incubation lasts for about 2 months and after hatching, young will spend another 4 months in the nest before fledging. Not only that, but the young may be dependent on parents for up to two years. This, of course, forces adults to nest in alternate years. Despite that, the pair is generally monogamous. It also means the nest is full of animal debris.

The average lifespan of a wild vulture is ~21 years; in captivity, lammergeyers can live to the ripe old age of 45.

STEPPE EAGLES (AQUILA NIPALENSIS)

Endangered

The Steppe eagle is a breeding resident of Mongolia, occupying dry habitat, steppes, desert, and semi-desert areas.

An inactive eagle or a smart eagle? This an eagle that may appear just inactive, since it spends much of its time perched on rock piles or telephone poles or just standing around on the ground.

This is a fairly large eagle - about 62–81 cm (24–32 in) in length and a wingspan of 1.7–2.2 m (5½ –7 ft).  Females, weighing in at 2.3–4.9 kg (5 –11 lb) are a bit bigger than males at 2–3.5 kg (4½ –7¾ lb). It has brown upperparts and blackish flight feathers and tail, not very distinguishing, however, the steppe eagle matures at about 6 years of age. Prior to maturity, there are two sets of age-related plumages after the white down plumage of juveniles. At 1 year, the color is light brown. Between 2-5 years, the plumage is reddish to darker “fawn” color. At 6+ years of age, feathers are dark brown. 

Steppe eagles mates for life and nests are moving up.  Typical of eagles, pairs mate for life. Breeding occurs in most parts of the range from April-August. Sites do vary. Traditionally, most nests were constructed on the ground, but increasingly, more nests have been constructed off the ground. Nests can now be found on the ground, in bushes, in trees, on rock columns, on cliffs, or in “anthropogenic” locations, like on abandoned cars, power poles, or artificial nest platforms.

The eagle builds a stick nest - considered flat looking.  The inside of the nest may be lined with old rags, bones, molted feathers, and camel dung.  In Mongolia, some nests are composed almost entirely of large mammal bones.  Clutch size is 1 – 3 white eggs with brownish markings; incubation is 45 days and starts with the first egg laid meaning one chick can be substantially larger than the others; fledging occurs at 55-65 days.

SAKER FALCON (FALCO CHERRUG)

Endangered

The saker falcon is a big, strong, ferocious bird of prey with big feet.

Saker females are markedly larger than males; females typically weigh 1135 g (2 ½ lb), have an average length of 55 cm (22 in), and a wingspan of 120 - 130 cm (5 ft). Males usually weigh 840 g (less than 2 lb), are about 45 cm long (18 in), and have a wingspan of 100 to 110 cm (3 ½ ft).


The bird simply called “saker” has variable colorations and white is a favorite. Color and pattern range from a fairly uniform base color of chocolate brown to cream with brown bars/streaks to brown-eyed leucistic individuals.  Leucism is a partial loss of pigmentation in an animal—which causes white, pale, or patchy coloration of the skin, hair, feathers, scales or cuticle, but not the eyes, genetics especially prized by Arab falconers.

Generally, the saker is a raptor of open grasslands, preferably with some trees or cliffs, and hunts by “horizontal” pursuit, rather than like the peregrine's swoop from a height. Typically, the saker falcon consumes rodents and birds.

Male and female sakers bow.  To attract females, male sakers engage in spectacular aerial displays and call loudly.  When the male encounters a mate or prospective mate, they bow to each other. Many of their interactions incorporate some element of bowing. When wooing a potential mate, a male will fly around dangling prey from his talons or will bring it to the female in an attempt to prove he is a good provider.


Females lay 3–6 eggs in the old stick nest.  After the third egg is laid, full incubation begins and usually lasts for about 32 to 36 days.  Males are attentive. They often feed their mates during this nesting period. When eggs hatch, the chick’s eyes are closed but open after a few days. They have two downy nestling plumage before attaining juvenile plumage. Adult plumage is gained when a little over a year old, after their first annual molt.

Adult falcons live approximately 6 years but can live up to 20 years of age.

MONGOLIAN GROUND JAY  (PODOCES HENDERSONI)

Regionally vulnerable

Locals call the Mongolian ground jay “Gobi Magpie”.  It is also known as Khulan Joroo. The Mongolian ground jay is considered a rare endemic bird species, only inhabiting the Gobi desert. Moltsog Els sand dune area in South Gobi is a well-known habitat for these beauties.

This ground jay is a distinctive corvid.  

The bird is about 30cm in length (12 in). It has a pale sandy head with a striking glossy black crown and nape. Upperparts of the body are sandy brown, with the richest color on scapulars, rump, and upper tail, a color scheme that plays an important role in camouflage.

The black and white wings are sometimes mistaken for Euroasian hoopoe, but the glossy blue-black tail stands out. It has a black, gently down-curved bill and dark brown eyes. This bird struts.

The Mongolian ground jay runs like a racehorse and likes the desert.  They have long, very strong legs adapted to fast running. They are agile leaping onto boulders and rocks. The ground jay prefers to run rather than fly from potential dangers.  

Breeding has been recorded from March to May. The nest is a bowl made of twigs and rootlets, placed low in a bush and rarely among boulders. The jay lays 3 - 4 eggs.

EURASIAN HOOPOE (UPUPA EPOPS)

Least concerned

It is the only extant member of its family, Upupidae. The hoopoe (Upupa epops) is an exciting and one of the most colorful birds found across Afro-Eurasia.  Of course, it’s notable for its distinctive "crown" of feathers. The name hoopoe comes after the sound they make.  The name is an onomatopoeic one, taken from the trisyllabic “oop-oop-oop” cry of the hoopoe. 

The flight of hoopoe is similar to butterflies.  The hoopoe is a medium-sized bird 25–32 cm (9½ –12½ in) long, with a 44–48 cm (17–19 in) wingspan. The species is highly distinctive, with a long, thin tapering bill that is black with a fawn base. The strengthened musculature of the head allows the bill to be opened when probing inside the soil. The hoopoe has broad and rounded wings capable of strong flight. It has a characteristic undulating flight, which is like that of a giant butterfly, caused by the wings half closing at the end of each beat or short sequence of beats.  It looks so much like a butterfly, its nickname is “the butterfly bird”.

Hoopoes like sunbathing. The hoopoe has two basic requirements of its habitat: bare or lightly vegetated ground on which to forage (and sunbathe) and vertical surfaces with cavities (such as trees, cliffs or even walls, nest boxes, haystacks, and abandoned burrows) in which to nest.

In what was long thought to be a defensive posture, hoopoes sunbathe by spreading out their wings, pressing their tail low against the ground and tilting their head up; they often fold their wings and preen halfway through. They also enjoy taking dust and sand baths.

The hoopoes may beat their prey against a favorite rock.  The hoopoe is a solitary ground forager for insects, although small reptiles, frogs and plant matter (seeds and berries) are sometimes taken as well.  These can range from 10 - 150 mm in length (0.5 – 6 in), with a preferred prey size of around 20–30 mm (~1 in). Most commonly their foraging style is to stride over relatively open ground and capture insects by “gaping”. During this action, the long tapered bill is first kept closed, then it is driven into the ground.  Strong muscles allow the bird to open its beak against the earth’s resistance while probing underground. It makes swift nibbling motions and the insect is captured. Before swallowing large prey items, the bird may stun them by battering them on the ground or a preferred stone. It consumes the prey then regurgitates the indigestible parts such as legs, wing cases, and thorax pieces, in the form of a small pellet.  More rarely they will feed in the air, where their strong and rounded wings make them fast and maneuverable when in pursuit of numerous swarming insects.

Hoopoes are monogamous, although the pair bond apparently only lasts for a single season.  They are also territorial. The male calls frequently to advertise his ownership of the territory. Chases and fights between rival males (and sometimes females) are common and can be brutal. Birds will try to stab rivals with their bills, and individuals are occasionally blinded in fights. 

The female alone is responsible for incubating the tiny, light-blue round eggs so the male is responsible for feeding the female. Incubation (15-18 days) begins as soon as the first egg is laid, so the chicks are born asynchronously. Chicks hatch with a covering of downy feathers but by about day three, feather quills emerge which become the adult feathers. The chicks are brooded by the female for 9 to 14 days and the female joins the male in the task of feeding young. They will fledge in 26 to 29 days and remain with the parents for about a week more. Baby hoopoes are far from helpless.  Young hoopoe chicks peek their heads out of their tree nest to get a snack from papa bird. He is not offended by their smell.

 

GOBI UNIQUE FAUNA

Great Gobi Biosphere Reserve – Endangered Species

Great Gobi A, in the southwestern part of Mongolia and dominated by desert and desert steppe, is generally drier than Great Gobi B. In 1991, the United Nations designated Great Gobi A and B together as the international Great Gobi Biosphere Reserve. With a total area of about 46,369 km² (18,000 mi²), it is one of the largest reserves worldwide.

The Gobi Biosphere Reserve is home to most ungulates and predators found within Gobi Gurvan Saikhan National Park, but the reserve is also a vital refuge for two of the most endangered animal species on earth:

  • Gobi bear or Mazaalai (Ursus arctos gobiensis) - (Status: Critically Endangered)

  • Wild Bactrian Camel (Camelus ferus) - (Status: Critically Endangered) 

Endangered, and increasingly relying on the protection from the Great Gobi B SPA include:

  • Przewalski’s Horse or Takhi (Equus ferus przewalskii) - (Status: Threatened Endangered)

  • Mongolian Wild Ass or Khulan (Equus hemionus hemionus)- (Status: Near Threatened)

  • Goitered Gazelle or Black-tailed Gazelle (Gazella subgutturosa) - (Status: Threatened Vulnerable)

GOBI BEAR OR MAZAALAI - URSUS ARCTOS GOBIENSIS

Critically endangered

Also known as ‘Mazaalai’ and regarded as a national treasure by Mongolians, the Gobi bear persists as the rarest and most unique ecotype in the Gobi. The current habitat is likely reduced by 60% from the historical range.  Currently, they occupy three main oasis complexes within the Great Gobi “A” Strictly Protected Area (SPA).  The population included only about 30 adults in 2009. 


Their fur is light brown. They have a noticeably darker head, belly, and legs. One distinguishing characteristic is a light-colored natural collar or a light-colored patch present around the neck or shoulder area.  

The Gobi bear is small compared to other brown bear subspecies.  The average length of an adult is 1½ m (4½ ft) long; adult males weigh 96–138 kg (210–300 lb.); adult females weigh about 51–78 kg (110–170 lb.). 


These bears have adapted to low food availability.  Diet consists primarily of wild rhubarb rhizomes (Rheum nanum), nitre bush berries (Nitraria spp.), grass shoots (e.g. Phragmites), wild onion (Allium spp.), ephedra, and other plants supported by desert springs.  Small amounts of animal matter are also consumed. This is mostly rodents and reported as approximately 1% of total intake.  There is no evidence that they prey on large mammals.

WILD BACTRIAN CAMEL - CAMELUS FERUS

Critically Endangered

The wild camel (Camelus ferus) is a new and separate species. The Gobi Biosphere Reserve is especially important for the camel since it is one of only three locations where the rare animal can be found.  The species is fully migratory so habitat ranges from rocky mountain massifs to flat arid desert, stony planes, and sand dunes.  There are approximately 450 surviving in Mongolia. In contrast, there are over 2 million domestic camels currently living in central Asia and with whom the wild camel competes.

Wild camels are diurnal - sleeping at night in open spaces and foraging for food during the day.  Shrubs and grass form the bulk of the diet, with the animals being well adapted to feed on dry, thorny, bitter or salty plants, plants other herbivores avoid. Excess fat is stored in the humps and used as a reserve when food is scarce.

Wild Bactrian camels have other special adaptations to survive desert life. They have:

  • long, narrow slit-like nostrils which can close, shielding against blowing sand,

  • a double row of long thick eyelashes, protecting against blowing sand,

  • ears with hairs, protecting against desert sandstorms

  • tough undivided soles with two large toes that spread widely, an adaptation to walking on sand

  •  a horny layer on their feet enabling them to walk on rough and hot stony or sandy surfaces

  • a thick hide and fur which protects against desert sun and heat, and help conserve body fluids.

  • a connecting indent that runs along with each nostril to the cleft top lip, so that any extra water or moisture can be trapped in the mouth

  • minimal sweat glands, instead of relying on the capability to tolerate an internal temperature increase of 6° C (43° F) before perspiring

  • oval-shaped blood cells that allow thick (dehydrated) blood to keep moving.

The wild Bactrian camels typically move in widely scattered groups of 6 to 20 individuals, depending on the amount of food available.  A single adult male will lead the group.  Their lifespan is about 40 years.  Females produce offspring starting at age 5 and thereafter in a 2-year cycle.  They breed during winter with overlap into the rainy season; gestation is ~13 months; and the female nurses the calf for 1.5 years. The young calf stays with its mother for three to five years until it reaches sexual maturity, and often serves to help raise subsequent generations for those years.

PRZEWALSKI’S HORSE OF TAKHI - EQUUS FERUS PRZEWALSKII

Threatened

The last sighting of native wild horses in Mongolia took place in 1969.  All Przewalski’s horses alive today are descendants of just twelve individuals, the nucleus of a captive zoo breeding program. It is considered endemic to Mongolia, as this is the only country where wild populations existed within its historic range.

Przewalski’s horse shares a common ancestor with the domestic horse (Equus caballus), has 66 chromosomes (compared to 64 in all other horse species), and can crossbreed with domestic horses to produce fertile offspring.


Przewalski’s horse is a compact and stocky animal with a dun coat, a black dorsal stripe, and a black mane. It has a large head and short thick neck. Legs are thin; legs are relatively short; it has small hooves. Przewalski’s horse stands 115-146 cm (11-14 hands) at the shoulder and weighs 275-325 kg (600-700 lbs).  But unlike domestic horses, the tail and mane hair is shed every year.

Przewalski’s horse formerly inhabited steppe and semi-desert habitats, however, most of this range has been altered or is occupied by livestock, therefore it is currently restricted to semi-desert habitats with limited water resources. 

MONGOLIAN WILD ASS OR MONGOLIAN KHULAN - EQUUS HEMIONUS HEMIONUS

Endangered

The Mongolian wild ass, also known as the Mongolian khulan (Equus hemionus hemionus) is one of 5 recognized sub-species of the Asiatic wild ass.  The Asiatic wild ass belongs to the Equid family-like horses, donkeys, zebras, Przewalski's horses, and the African wild ass, but it is its own species.  One sub-species is extirpated -totally extinct in the wild. 


The Mongolian Khulan represents the largest population of the Asiatic wild ass in the world.  In 1997, the population was estimated at 43,165 individuals (FEH et al. 2001, reading et al. 2001).  Numbers have declined significantly since then.  In 2003, the estimate was 18,411 +/- 898 in four areas.  Since 1953, the Mongolian wild ass has been fully protected in Mongolia.  The khulan is listed in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species as “endangered”.  There is a high risk of extinction in the wild. 


Mongolia represents an extremely important location for the conservation of this species.  The animal mainly lives in the desert-steppe, semi-desert, and deserts of the Gobi, with small populations in northern china (Xinxiang and Inner Mongolia).  They feed on grasses as well as herbs, shrubs, and trees of the Zygophyllaceae family in the drier zones. 


Khulan is known to dig holes in dry river beds in hot summer months, providing access to subsurface water.  These watering holes are also used by other species (wild and domestic) as well as by humans.​

SNOW LEOPARD - PANTHERA UNCIA

Threatened, vulnerable

Known throughout the world for its beautiful fur and solitary, elusive behavior, the endangered snow leopard is found above the tree line in the rugged Gobi Altai and Khangai Mountains, the Alashan Plateau (includes the Great Gobi Protected Area) and Eastern Gobi Desert Steppe.


A snow leopard is an animal perfectly adapted to the cold, barren landscape of their high-altitude home.

  • Its extra-large paws keep the cat from sinking into the snow- like a pair of snowshoes.

  • There is hair on the undersides of the paws, which minimizes heat loss and increases grip on steep and unstable surfaces. 

  • Short round ears reduce heat loss.

  • The cat has soft, dense fur (extra thick in winter) to keep the cat’s body warm.

  • The tail is thick (fat storage) and is also covered with dense fur. This allows the cat to use it as a blanket and to protect its face when asleep.


The snow leopard sports excellent camouflage thanks to its whitish to gray fur with black spots on its head and neck, but larger black rosettes on its back.  Sometimes a male and female might be seen together during mating season, or perhaps a mother with her young cubs.  But these are shy, elusive cats, not known to be aggressive to humans. 

The availability of wild prey is the most important factor that determines range suitability.  The snow leopard is an opportunistic hunter and does eat carrion, but the most important prey species are ibex and argali.


The cat is moderate in size, standing 55-65 cm (22 - 26 in) tall at the shoulder, 90 – 115 cm (3 – 4 ft) long in the body and with tails 1 m (3 ½ ft) in length. The tails actually facilitate their balance. The cat has strong, short front limbs and longer hind limbs helping to launch itself up to 10 m (30 ft) in one leap!  They kill with a bite to the neck and drag the prey to a safe location before feeding.  All edible parts of the carcass are consumed.  A sheep can satiate a snow leopard for two weeks before hunting begins again.

To mark their territory or locate mates, snow leopards leave scrapes (marks made on the ground with their hind legs) and leave scat and spray urine on rocks.  Usually, mating occurs in late winter, between January and mid-March, marked by a noticeable increase in calling and marking.  During this time, a male and a female will travel together for a few days and copulate.  The female is pregnant for 93-110 days before retiring to a sheltered den site and giving birth to her cubs in June or July. The diligent mother raises her offspring alone, providing food and protection for her cubs.

Cubs are blind and helpless when they are born; eyes do not open until they are about 7 days old.  At 2 months of age, cubs are ready to eat solid food.  At 3 months of age, they follow their mother and begin learning hunting behavior.  At 18-22 months of age, cubs become independent and set out on their own. 

In the wild, it is almost impossible to spot snow leopards as they stay vigilant and quiet. 

 

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