Fieldwork in Tibetan Plateau | Natural History Museum of Los Angeles

A camel caravan from the Sino-Swedish Scientific Expedition in the 1930s moves slowly through the Gobi Desert and northern Tibet. During the past several years, I have led field trips revisiting some of these classic localities. Photo by Birger Bohlin, one of expedition leaders.

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Xiaoming Wang's Fieldwork in Tibetan Plateau

During the past 15 years, I have led field work in three Tibetan basins: Qaidam Basin, Kunlun Pass Basin, and Zanda Basin. These projects are designed to answer questions related to the geology and paleontology of the plateau, such as:

  • Biostratigraphy and magnetostratigraphy for determining ages of the basin sediments;
  • Zoogeography to learn about faunal distributions and mammal migrations;
  • Drainage evolution through phylogenetic relationships of fossil fishes;
  • Paleoenvironment through fossil plants and animals that are indicative to specific environments;
  • Plant community through the diets of mammalian herbivores (C3 vs. C4 plants);
  • Regional climate through hydrological cycles and oxygen isotopes.

See Natural History magazine article about discovery of ancient woolly rhino.

Acknowledgments: Our field work was funded by the National Science Foundation (EAR-1227212; EAR-0924142; EAR-0716507; EAR-0446699), National Geographic Society (No. W 22-08; NGS 6771-00; NGS 6004-97), Chinese Academy of Science Outstanding Overseas Scholar Fund (KL205208), and the Chinese National Natural Science Foundation (Nos. 49872011 and 40128004).


Map of Tibetan Plateau (white dash line) in China

In the last several years, I have worked in several large terrestrial basins in and around the Tibetan Plateau: Lanzhou Basin, Linxia (Longzhong) Basin, and Danghe (Tabenbuluk) Basin in Gansu Province; Qaidam (Tsaidam) and Kunlun Mountain Pass Basin in Qinghai Province, and Zhada Basin in southwestern Tibet Autonomous Region. Work in these basins allows us a sense of vertebrate evolution in various parts of the Plateau during different times.

"Ghost Town" exposures

The Qaidam Basin is the largest terrestrial basin on the Tibetan Plateau, and is also richest in vertebrate fossils. This exposure at the "Ghost Town" in central Qaidam Basin is typical of wind erosions on formerly extremely saline deposits.

Spanish rhino teeth

This upper right first through third molars of a Hispanotherium rhino is among mammals in the middle Miocene part of the eastern Qaidam Basin. This rhino is also found in the middle Miocene of Europe.

Crowned antler deer

This nearly complete antler of Stephanocemas, an extinct primitive deer, was discovered and collected by Gary Takeuchi in 2006. Deer antlers are particularly abundant in the Qaidam Basin. Modern deer often prefer wooded environments. Presence of the deer in the middle and late Miocene of Qaidam permits us to learn something about the paleoenvironments of the basin. Stephanocemas is commonly found in the early to middle Miocene of Eurasia.

Carp-like fish

Fishes are particularly abundant in eastern Qaidam Basin during the late Miocene. This articulated tail of a cyprinid fish (carp family) is an example of what can be found in some localities. Some fish reaches to rather large sizes, possibly 100 pounds or more. Such a large fish suggests the presence of large bodies of fresh water during the Miocene. This is in sharp contrast to an extremely dry environment in much of the modern Tibetan Plateau, especially in the present Qaidam Basin.

Zanda Basin

The Zanda Basin at the foothills of the Himalaya has become a major focus of my research in recent years. It's fine-grained layer-cake sediments from an ancient lake preserve some of the most interesting vertebrate fossils. Photo near Duoxiang village.

Zanda Woolly rhino
Ancestral woolly rhino, Coelodonta thibetana, from locality ZD 0740. This primitive species was living in Zanda Basin from 5.1 to 3.2 million years ago, significantly earlier than other species in the Ice Age of Eurasia.  We have proposed an "out of Tibet" hypothesis based on this woolly rhino that suggests the origins of some Ice Age megafauna may have been in the Tibetan Plateau.  See Deng et al. (2011) for details.  See also Natural History magazine article about discovery of ancient woolly rhino.

Holotype of Coelodonta thibetana, complete skull and mandible, IVPP V15908.

Artist reconstruction of Coelodonta thibetana by Julie Selan.

Tibet-Arctic connection, the tale of a fox

Holotype of Vulpes qiuzhudingi (in honor of Prof. Qiu Zhuding at Chinese Academy of Sciences) has teeth that are highly specialized toward carnivory, strikingly similar to those of the arctic fox Vulpes lagopus. Such a similarity allows us to formulate the idea that ancient Tibetan fox adapted to harsh life in high plateau and giving rise to the arctic fox during the Ice Age. Another fossil site that also produces this fox is the Kunlun Pass Basin. See Wang et al. (2014) for full description of this fox.

This map suggests a possible scenario for the origin of arctic fox from Tibetan Plateau:

Click here for an enlarged image of above.

Collaborating Institutions:
- Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology (Beijing), Chinese Academy of Sciences.

- Institute of Tibetan Plateau Research (Beijing), Chinese Academy of Sciences

- Stable Isotope Laboratory, Florida State University (Tallahassee).

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation (No. EAR-0446699). Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.