The Gobi Desert
Wildlife, Plants and Culture
The Gobi Desert is famed for its striking wildlife, with some modern species now extremely rare. A few examples include:
Fossils, especially those of dinosaurs, first discovered by the American Museum of Natural History in the 1920's, have shed new light on the process of evolution. Fossilized dinosaur nests and eggs, for instance, have yielded new insight into how those reptiles nurtured and reared their young. Other fossils have pointed to the evolutionary linkage between dinosaurs and birds. The Gobi's vast fossil beds have been labeled a paleontologist's "Vallhalla"--a heavenly destination for those favored by the gods.
The jerboa, a family of small mammals adapted to burrowing and known for their jumping ability. They have exceptionally long back legs -- five times longer, in fact, than their forelegs -- and they have lengthy and flexible tails. They can jump, in sandy soil, as much as 10 feet. The jerboa are native to the Eastern Gobi Desert Steppe, the Junggar Basin and the Tian Shan Range.
The central Asian viper, one of the most dangerous snakes in the Gobi because of its aggressiveness and highly toxic venom. Typically about two feet in length, the central Asian viper has a buff to reddish to olive color with variable patterning and a light colored belly with distinct to faint brown dots. Traveling across the desert sand, it moves much like the sidewinder rattlesnake of the American Southwest. It sometimes climbs into shrubs or bushes, where it may sometimes cluster with other central Asian vipers. Its venom, the anticoagulant agent, is used in various drugs. The snake is native to the Gobi Lakes Valley.
Przewalski's horse, the last of the world's truly wild horses and critically endangered. Only about four feet high at the shoulder, the animal has a dun coat, a black dorsal stripe and a black mane, according to the Smithsonian National Zoological Park. In the wild, it lived in a harem, which included a dominant stallion and several mares. Until recently, the horse occurred wild in the Junggar Basin, but it now lives only in captivity, although a reintroduction program has been initiated.
The Bactrian camel, which has two humps (compared with the Sahara Desert's dromedary camel, which has only one hump). A shaggy animal that may weigh a ton or more, the Bactrian camel has long eyelashes and sealable nostrils, which help it cope with intense sand storms. It has feet with broad toes and undivided soles, which help it walk in desert sand. One of the only two remaining populations of the camel occupy the Alashan Plateau.
The snow leopard, a predator distinguished by its lush, thick, light-colored fur marked by dark spots. According to Defenders of Wildlife, the cat stands about two feet at the shoulder, and it measures from 6 to 7.5 feet in length, including its tail. It has long and powerful back legs, giving it the ability to leap as much as 30 feet. It preys primarily on wild goats and sheep. It occupies the higher elevations of the Alashan Plateau and, possibly, the Eastern Gobi Desert Steppe.
Gobi Desert plants offer a different set of wonders. For one example, the fruit and maple trees of the Tian Shan Range are remnant species of a deciduous forest that flourished in the region during the Tertiary, a geologic period that lasted from about 65 to some 2 million years ago. In another example, the saxaul, a bush-like tree that grows in all of the Gobi's ecoregions, has bark that holds moisture, making it an important water source for nomads crossing the desert, and it has roots that host a parasitic plant that local medical practitioners utilize as an energy source. Read more about the saxaul here.
Although the Gobi's forbidding rocky, sandy and arid landscape and its harsh summer and winter weather have long held back extensive settlement, it has still served as a stage for ancient and legendary chapters in the human story. For a few examples:
Its soils hold fragments of the stone weapons and tools of hunting and gathering nomads of a 100,000 years ago.
Its desert surface hosted parts of the fabled Silk Road, a 4000-mile-long braid work of trade routes that connected Asia and Europe for three millennia.
Silk Road communities -- some visited by the Venetian explorer Marco Polo during his 13th century travels -- witnessed the flow of luxury trade goods such as fabrics (especially silk), spices, medicines, perfumes, glassware, jewels and slaves.
In the 12th century, it became a part of the great Mongol Empire, and in the 13th century, its trails conducted the forces of Genghis Kahn southward, into China.
The Gobi's ancient city of Karakorum became a center for Buddhist monasteries such as Erdene Zuu, which was built when the religion made its way into Mongolia during the 16th century.
Traveling the Gobi Desert -- possibly by jeep or even camel caravan, preferably in the early or late summer -- you can explore dramatic rocky landscapes, towering dunes, Silk Road segments, ancient oasis communities and monumental ruins. You can visit nomadic peoples who still follow traditional ways. With tours and in parks, you can see Gobi Desert wildlife, for instance, jerboa, Bactrian camels, goitered gazelles, Gobi brown bears, wild mountain sheep, Siberian ibex as well as various predators. You might even visit the dinosaur fossil beds. In the museums, you will find the artifacts of those who wove the history of the Gobi over 100 millennia.
Jay W. Sharp
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