05 February 2008

Expedition to Research Natural History in Mongolia

A federal research grant is funding an expedition to Mongolia to document the biological diversity of Gobi Gurvan Saikhan National Park, and its local environs.

The three year project is being funded with a $620,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to Scott Gardner, curator of the Manter Laboratory of Parasitology, University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Expedition members are from UNL, Hokkaido University, Portland State University and the University of Kansas. They will work closely with scientists from the National University of Mongolia.

"We will conduct education and research to teach the Mongols how to preserve their biodiversity," said Gardner. "The expedition is resurrecting some of the ideas to go exploring to study animal life. We are going into places little studied to document diversity."

Birds, small mammals, amphibians and reptiles, and parasites will each the subject of research by the diverse group of specialists. Collecting specimens will be a prime component of each visit. Parasite material will be used to establish the Mongolian Vertebrate Parasite Project. Bird skins and tissues will become part of the avian collection at the University of Kansas. One-half of the collected items will go to the NUM.

Details from the surveys, Gardner said, will be useful in evaluating genetic flow among species, influences of habitat fragmentation, phylogentic relationships and species coevolution.

The park is 27,000 square kilometers of diverse flora communities across a broad range of elevations, including sand dune fields, ice-filled canyons and other habitats.

During their time in this country, the expedition expects to have base-camps, and then move around primarily via camels and horses. Most of the grant money is expected to be spent in Mongolia, purchasing supplies and hiring local help.

Despite its remote location, the expedition plans to use technology to the degree possible, since it provides additional opportunities to collect information important to conservation, Gardner said. Photographs, recordings of bird songs, and video-tape can provide additional documentation.

"The research project will be also featured as part of the summer youth education program of the University of Nebraska State Museum," Gardner said. "We will work with young students in Mongolia to teach the importance of science and value of field research in discovering biology."

There was a previous two-month expedition to the Park in 1999, said Gardner. The visiting researchers worked with the National University of Mongolia to establish long term environmental research sites, meant to provide results over a five-to-ten year period.

Research findings included new species of tapeworms. This project had also been funded by the NSF.

The last previous systematic surveys of animals had been conducted in the 1920s, Gardner said.

The expedition hopes to keep its web-site up-to-date during their time in inner Mongolia, by using amateur HAM radio. This will allow regular communication to students and to send emails that can be posted on the project website.

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