Traces of the lost world of giant reptiles, a nearly unfathomable 100 million years in the past, are plentiful in this north Chinese region - perhaps more plentiful than anywhere else on the planet.

Shao Qinglong is the chief curator at the Inner Mongolia Museum, in the centre of Hohhot, the regional capital. He said: "We haven't yet uncovered one 100th, or one 1000th, or one 10,000th of what there is to find. The area is just so huge."

 

Just keeping order of the fossils that have already been excavated is hard enough for the museum, which, although large and sprawling, has very little in the way of modern technology at its disposal.

 

In an unheated room in a corner of the compound, middle-aged women are bent over dinosaur bones, cleaning them with pocket knives and small brushes.

 

Unknown species

 

Work on one of the world's great dinosaur treasures is proceeding at a slow pace, and Shao could use a few more helping hands.

 

"Paleontologists with an interest in dinosaurs should definitely come to Inner Mongolia," he says.

 

Traces of the giant reptiles are
plentiful in northern China

Inner Mongolia covers more than twice the land area of France, leaving it very much to chance what is uncovered and what could stay forever hidden from view.

 

Li Hong, the director of the museum's natural history department, remembers the entirely fortuitous chain of events that led her to discover a hitherto unknown species of a pinacosaurus dinosaur - a giant armadillo-like herbivore that grew up to five metres long.

 

In August 1996, while at work in the remote district of Bayanmandahu, she got lost from the rest of her team, and collapsed on the ground, overcome by thirst and despair.

 

Li noticed a strangely familiar shape sticking out of the parched soil, and had enough presence of mind to determine it was the skull of a pinacosaurus dinosaur.

 

Excited, she got up and eventually able to trace her steps back to the site, found her teammates.

 

Unique place

 

"It just goes to show how much this kind of research depends on chance or even luck," Li says.

 

"You have to be lucky, but of course luck alone is not enough.  You also need to have enough experience, so you can tell if you find something interesting."

 

Inner Mongolia's special geography makes it a unique place to look for dinosaurs.

 

Much of the area, which takes up a chunk of the Gobi desert, is largely unchanged from tens of millions of years ago and the fossilised dinosaurs remain where they lay down to die.

 

Pascale Godefroit, a paleontologist with the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural History, said: "The Gobi desert is one of the best places in the world for dinosaurs."

 

"The ground is formed by sediments dating from the dinosaur age, and because it's desert, it's easier to find the dinosaur remains."

 

Generations of scientists have been attracted to the area, braving the immense logistical hurdles of doing research in a place as arid, desolate and inaccessible as this.

 

Beaver-like animal 

 

A series of five American expeditions took place in the 1920s, originally launched in hopes of finding traces of man's most remote ancestors, but eventually winding up with truckloads of dinosaur fossils instead.

 

And in the heyday of Sino-Soviet friendship in the 1950s, Russians carried away tons of fossils which are still kept in Moscow.

 

It is yet another example of Inner Mongolia's central role in paleontology that scientists have now found remnants of a beaver-like animal that lived alongside dinosaurs here.

 

The finding reported in the US journal Science could lead to a complete rewrite of the history of mammals, since is now seems they emerged as an important factor in the life of the planet much earlier than previously thought.

 

"Paleontologists with an interest in dinosaurs should definitely come to Inner Mongolia."

Shao Qinglong,
Chief Curator,
Inner Mongolia Museum

Other discoveries could be waiting in the future, if only the harsh nature of Inner Mongolia allows it.

 

Li, the museum's director, said: "Every year, the sand is blown away, and unknown fossils suddenly turn up."

 

"When that happens, you have to hurry up, for the sand may cover it again the following year."

 

Fossils hunters

 

But potentially worse than the sand masses are the private fossil hunters who walk away with often priceless specimens.

 

"Sightseers have picked fossils here and there. It's severely impacted the research," says Li.

 

But the sightseers are only fringe actors in the unequal fight over the region's unique fossil record that is currently being waged.

 

It is a fight between well-funded illegal traders who are in it for the money and scientists sustained by meager government salaries.

 

Godefroit said: "It's a problem. Now you can find a lot of Chinese fossils on the private market everywhere in the world. Dinosaur eggs are very popular.

 

"Of course it's completely illegal, but it's not difficult to bring the fossils abroad. It's like drugs. Everyone wants to stop it, but they can't."