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The largest eggs in the world were found in the Gobi Desert

Posted in Animals, Dinosaurs, Historical articles, Prehistory on Friday, 20 December 2013

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This edited article about dinosaurs first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 499 published on 7 August 1971.

Protoceratops eggs, picture, image, illustration

A female Protoceratops fighting to protect her eggs

In the summer of 1922, a party of scientists, led by Robert Chapman Andrews, an explorer, were slowly making their way in trucks and cars across the great Gobi Desert of Outer Mongolia.

They were members of the American Central Asiatic Expedition, whose object was to make a natural history survey of the Gobi.

A thousand miles of desert salt basins, lone scrub and rolling ridges make up the Gobi, which has always been a formidable barrier to exploration. The ancient caravan trail could only skirt the fringes of this vast wasteland. It was not until the end of the last century that men dared to leave the caravan routes to explore the unknown interior.

The American expedition had travelled 800 miles into the Gurban Sayhan district of South Gobi, when they came to some sandstone cliffs known as the Flaming Cliffs of Djadochta.

As the scientists tumbled from their vehicles to begin surveying, little did they know what momentous discoveries lay ahead.

Searches along the face of the cliffs led, before long, to the discovery of the bones of a 7 ft. dinosaur, unknown at that time. Later it was to be recognized as the now world-famous Protoceratops, the ancestral grandsire of all the mighty horned dinosaurs.

Exciting as was this discovery, it was soon overshadowed by a member of the expedition who found three petrified eggs sticking out of a sandstone ledge. Under the shelf, the ends of two more were spotted. The whole slab of weathered sandstone contained a nest of dinosaur eggs, 13 in all. They had been laid in two layers, like turtle eggs, their rounded ends facing inwards. There they were, looking as they must have done when the female Protoceratops had left them buried in the sand 95 million years earlier.

One electrifying discovery followed another for, although many of the eggs had been crushed by the weight of the sand over them, two contained the tiny bones of unhatched dinosaurs.

Continued excavation uncovered further skulls of newly hatched reptiles which could not have been out of their shells for more than a few days, before they were buried in a sandstorm.

A further touch of mystery and drama was added by the discovery of the fossil head and some bones of an ostrich dinosaur, known as Ovirapator (egg robber) lying a few inches above the Protoceratops nest.

Had it been killed by an enraged parent caught in the act of stealing an egg, or had the sandstorm meted out the same fate to the thief as to the others?

We may never know the answer to this desert mystery, which began in the Cretaceous period, 95 million years ago.

At this time, Asia was joined to North America by a broad land bridge over what is now the Bering Strait. Across this isthmus travelled the horned dinosaurs to breed a mighty race of giants.

Across the tropical lands of Wyoming and Montana wandered monsters weighing 8¬Ω tons and 20 ft. long. Monoclonious, Styracosaurus and Triceratops are the names scientists have given them.

But in spite of their numbers and power, they were unable to survive into the age of mammals. About 70 million years ago, like all the other dinosaurs, they became extinct.

The hungry seas

The animal life which followed was affected by the gradual movement of continents over a great span of time. It is hard to imagine that, at one time, the whole of the British Isles, and most of Europe, the Middle East, North India and parts of Burma lay under the waves of two great seas, the Tethys and Uralian.

For more than 560 million years, these two seas dominated the life and shape of the continent. Sometimes they covered vast areas of land, or receded as the land was forced above the sea.

The idea that the continents are like vast, floating icebergs is generally accepted. But the continents rest on the heavy, lower strata that makes up the earth’s crust. Heat, escaping from the red-hot core of the earth, melts the substance (basalt) beneath the lighter rocks of the continents’ foundations, making waves of heat. Over millions of years, these move the huge land masses either away from or towards one another.

That this has happened many times in the past history of the world is more than likely. At various times, Europe has been separated from Asia and attached to Greenland and Canada. Asia, divided from Africa, was joined by a wide isthmus to North America over what is now the Bering Strait.

All these continental driftings have had a big effect on the evolution of animal life. This tends to make the species similar when the continents are joined. Differences and new forms of life appear where wide oceans prevent the mingling of races.

The best example is Australia. This land, isolated from a once enormous continent called Gondwanaland, developed creatures found nowhere else. Mammals which had live young were appearing in other places. But in Australia there appeared the egg-laying Monotremes, like the Duckbill Platypus and the Spiny Anteater. With them live the wonderful marsupials, which carry their young in a pouch.

In a similar way, South America was isolated from North America by the breaking of the Isthmus of Panama. Here grew a remarkable and now extinct marsupial meat-eater, ungulates which bore live young, sloths and glyptodons.

Europe was connected to North America 70 to 60 million years ago in the Palaeocene era. Then, the species of animals on the two continents were very much alike.

Later, when there was a temporary parting of the continents, different forms of life developed on either side of the oceans.

The rejoining of the landmasses in succeeding eras, led once again to the intermingling of species. The influx of more advanced animals also caused the more ancient forms of life to vanish for ever.

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