The Gobi Desert of Central Asia is one of the earth's desolate places. Its million square kilometers of sand dunes, sculpted badlands and saw-toothed mountains are alternately scorched by summer's high-latitude sun and frozen by winter's Siberian winds. It is not a place to explore unprepared: crossing vast, uninhabited areas between a sprinkling of oases requires careful planning akin to the siege tactics for scaling a Himalayan peak or traversing the Antarctic continent. There are few maps, and satellite navigation is of limited help to a traveler trying to choose among deeply rutted, wildly crisscrossing roads that wander as unpredictably as the nomadic settlements they connect. Even a modern expedition runs the risk of water, fuel and food shortages. Getting lost is not merely frustrating but a matter of serious danger.
Yet the Gobi is a paradise for paleontologists. Its eroding terrain exposes nearly complete skeletons of creatures hitherto known only through painstaking reconstructions from a few scattered bones. Our expeditions, jointly sponsored by the Mongolian Academy of Sciences and the American Museum of Natural History, have excavated dinosaurs, lizards and small mammals in an unprecedented state of preservation. Freshly exposed skeletons sometimes look more like the recent remains of a carcass than like an 80-million-year-old fossil. The skeletons and skulls we have found are often complete or nearly complete, in sharp contrast to the fragments typically recovered elsewhere.