July 26th, 2012

Today is the day we finished the harvest! After about a week of constant cutting, clipping, and bagging from 9 until 7 with only a brief break for lunch, I was ready for the completion. The great thing though is that we finished the harvest 3 days earlier than Laura and Pierre expected!

What the harvest entails is cutting down and collecting all the vegetation, litter (dead matter, such as dead leaves and stems), and lichen. By doing this, Pierre and Laura will be able to weigh vegetation, litter, and lichen, cumulatively known as biomass, and measure the productivity of each plot with its different treatment, watering, warming, or grazing. Pierre and Laura will be able to see how each treatment affects the productivity of the plant community.

One thing I noticed while harvesting is that lichen populations pretty much did not exist in plots which had a high plant density, while in lower plant density plots lichen populations were higher.

After we finished the harvest, it was lunch time, and Khashaa cooked a mean lunch of cabbage salad and dumplings! The dumplings were fried and filled with ground yak meat. I found them incredibly delicious!

Since about 12 of us had been working so hard for the last week on the harvest, Dr. Casper called the rest of the day off! For pretty much all of us, this meant adventure time!

Mongolian students have told us about this mysterious lake up in the mountains. The hike is long they said, but the lake is beautiful and well worth the trip. Apparently, there are two of this gems hiding out in the mountains, so on this free afternoon, eleven of us packed a towel, strapped on our backpacks, and filled our water bottles for a hike to the mountain lake.

I found the hike the be really awesome. There is nothing like being out in nature, walking through the forest whilst admiring all the incredible flora and fauna and just listening to the sounds of the earth. On the marshlands, so many purple wild flowers were in bloom creating a blanket of beauty. In the forest, a wild blueberry bush grows and even though most of the berries were green, I was lucky to find a couple of ripe ones. Yum!

When we got to the lake, I was so hot and sweaty that I waded in pretty soon after arriving. Aurora, one of the graduate students, went in first and found that when she stepped into the mud, it came up to her knees! Interestingly enough, the entire lake was like this! A lot of plants grew right in the lake as well so when I was swimming I could feel these creepy plants brushing against my body while I swam through the water. After a while, I got used to the plants and began to enjoy the fact that the plants grew in the middle of the lake.

On the way back from the hike, all the boys decided it was a great idea to climb up this giant rock face intermixed with earth to reach the top of the hill/mountain. Not wanting to be left behind and yearning for adventure, I decided to step up to the challenge and climb this rock face. Though it looks on the ground like a very difficult climb, I found the ascent to be surprisingly easier than expected and incredibly fun! There were plenty of ledges for hands and footholds for feet, but the face was still pretty steep. I would say I have a healthy fear of heights and so every time I looked behind me I would see how steep the face was and how high up I was and have a bit of a mini panic attack inside. This in turn caused me to just continue climbing forward and avoiding looking down!

Arriving at the top of the face made the scary climb completely worth the risk. At the top of this face awaits an expansive view of the the entire Dalbay Valley. From the top you can see the gigantic mountains to the west hugging the coastline of Lake Khovsgol and to the east an endless valley of green with forests atop the hills.

Dalbay Valley is an incredibly beautiful place, and I have truly enjoyed my stay here. Not only have I gotten be part of a cool scientific project, and learned so much about ecology, but I have been able to experience Mongolian culture. We leave Dalbay in just a few days, and even though this month in Mongolia has gone by so quickly, it is an experience I will never forget.

-Alysen Vilhena
rising junior, University of Pennsylvania, Dalbay Valley


The Harvest Begins

After five years of warming chambers, control plots, phenology counts, and watering, the PIRE Mongolia project all comes down to this: biomass measurements. And those measurements currently consume the Dalbay Camp.

As most regular readers of this blog should know, the PIRE Mongolia group studies the effects of climate and land use change in northern Mongolia. We warm our plots with chambers to increase temperature. We water our plots to increase rainfall. We cover our plots with other chambers to decrease rainfall. We fence our plots to keep grazers out and we open some fences in the fall to let grazers in. For five years, 82 little meter by half meter plots have all been subjected to varying degrees of “climate change” and grazing pressure.

And what have we found? Well, up to now, we’ve only collected data using what’s called non-destructive measurements. By counting the number of flowers in each plots, we can show how certain grasses and forbs react to climate manipulation, while others don’t really alter their numbers of flowers or their timing. By monitoring the soil temperature in the grazed plots, we could tell that grazers munch the plant litter that shades the soil and keeps it cool. But now the time for destruction has begun…

If we really want to understand how these types of climate manipulation might affect the community of plants that make up the Mongolian steppe, we need to understand how much biomass the plants produced after years of experiencing a different temperature. Every year, we’ve noted the type and number of plants growing in each plot, but that only tells part of the story. For example, the warmed plots could have lots of species, but maybe they aren’t all that big. Perhaps the warmer temperatures are an extra stress that prevents the plants from growing as large as they did previously. Or perhaps the drought treatment favors some of the grasses in the plots, allowing them to more effectively compete against the forbs and sedges, growing bigger and bigger. Or perhaps nothing happens at all. But to find out, we have to harvest all the plants, dry them, and weigh them.

This might sound like a simple task, but it’s actually quite difficult. Thursday, we began cutting the above-ground biomass (so stems and leaves, no roots) in every plot. Once cut, we sort the biomass by species, place it into little paper bags, and continue until the plot is a barren, brown meter by half meter square framed by the green vegetation surrounding it. Now, one of the gers is completely full of drying bags of vegetation, slowly taking over beds and preventing anyone from starting a fire, lest they accidentally set five years of experiment ablaze.

The warming experiment is not the only biomass action in Dalbay, however. Led by Dr. Bazartseren Boldgiv, chair of the Ecology Department at the National University of Mongolia and the chief Mongolian collaborator with the PIRE Mongolia project, a group of Mongolian students are harvesting two eight meter by eight meter plots of above-ground biomass. This effort is part of a global experiment to investigate the relationship between species richness and productivity (amount of above-ground biomass produced) in grasslands. This group has been diligently stapling paper bags every night, leaving bags out in the sun to dry, and quickly bringing them in from the rain.

While this work is important, the long days of uncomfortable and tedious work have taken a toll on camp life. The number of volleyball games has decreased, as have card games and groups going running. Now, the evenings seem mostly consumed with resting our backs in preparation for another long day ahead.

No Gerbils Yet

Mongolia is fantastic!

It’s been about nineteen days now since I’ve been in Mongolia, and I have to say it is quite different from the United States! Gers are sprinkled everywhere, yaks roam the cities and towns, and Mongolian babies (possibly some of the cutest babies on earth!) are abundant.

The countryside of Mongolia astounded me with its beauty. Everywhere mountains grow from the earth and yaks dot the grasslands. The most amazing thing about Mongolia is that the grasslands and mountains never seem to end. Towns are sparse, and because so the scenery seems untouched by humans. When traveling through Mongolia, you aren’t running into town after town like in America, but rather you may only catch a glimpse of civilization indicated by a herd of yaks or a single ger.

Roads are nothing like American roads. The road that we took to get to Dalbay Valley is considered a main road to Russia, and yet it is basically a roller coaster ride, especially in what are dubbed as the “Russian Vans”. These can fit over ten people if you cram in close enough and are capable of plowing through streams and extremely rocky roads!

When I first arrived at the Dalbay ger camp, it reminded me of a small village with its seven gers and couple of horses tied up on poles. The slope turned out to be MUCH bigger than I had expected! Lets just say that my leg muscles get a pretty good workout every time Laura or Pierre has us walk up to Plot 9!

Our cook, Khashaa, is not only the manliest man you’ve ever met (he is able to pretty much take any American at camp down in wrestling, and the other day while on a swimming trip, he ran from one side of the bridge, jumped over the railing, and dived head first into the stream!), but he is a magician when it comes to cooking. Even though the same ingredients are used for basically every meal, you always think you are eating something new and different. Hmmmm.

I have become accustomed to cold river baths, and now find them normal despite their freezing cold temperature. The hardest part though is dunking one’s body in once he or she has reached about mid-thigh. I have always really hated cold water, and not been very good about just jumping into it. I trick myself into doing it by telling myself I’m doing a cool hip hop dance move or something of the like. This usually works, and on a good day, I can even get up to 5 or 6 dunks in. The best part about these baths though is getting OUT of the water!

But what am I actually here for? The science of course! I feel like I’ve learned so much ecology since I’ve arrived! The first day at camp Laura and Pierre gave the undergrads a crash course in scientific plant names and what all the experiments were about. The course was a brain overload after being out of class for seven weeks! The best was yet to come though, because a few days after that, the undergrads got to choose their independent projects. 😀 At first, most of the undergrads said they weren’t going to do a project, but then after Pierre had us go out into the wilderness and think about questions we’d like to answer, everyone came back with an idea what they wanted to do for an independent project.

I am doing a project on the effects of different experimental manipulations on seed production. Basically, how grazing, warming, and watering affect the number of seeds produced by plants. In the end, this research can tell us how different treatments affect the reproduction and population of plants (assuming that more seeds will result in more plants). I’m not sure if I’m going to try and tackle every treatment performed on the plots here, but I will at least compare the control to either grazing, warming, or watering treatment. What this project consists of doing is counting flowers and collecting seeds from the plants and later counting the seeds. It’s a lot of work, but I’m hoping to see some interesting patterns from the data that I collect.

-Alysen Vilhena, rising junior, University of Pennsylvania, Dalbay Valley

Winds of Change

Ever since the Penn undergraduates arrived in Dalbay last week, the winds have been blowing strong. Sometimes this is a good thing. Just two days ago, we were able to break out the kites that a certain benevolent leprechaun donated to the project for our enjoyment. One kite, shaped like a butterfly, is relatively easy to fly and looks really lifelike as it “flaps its wings” in the wind. Three others are beginner stunt kites, allowing us to harness the wind for cool tricks, dives, and loops. One, a more intermediate level stunt kite, suffered a possibly life threatening injury when we beginners tried to take it out for a fly. However, with some impressive ingenuity and a bit of duct tape, Ukaa, a Mongolian undergraduate student, managed to repair what might have been left for dead.

The wind has also brought bad things to camp. Apparently, Siberia, just to the north of us in Dalbay, is suffering some of the worst wildfires on record. The smoke and ash from these distant fires has been blowing south, we assume, obstructing our views of the mountains, providing us with hazy, fog-like mornings, and making one project coordinator’s eyes and nose very, very runny.

Haze from fires in Siberia in 2003 (Photo by Peter Petraitis)

The wind has not changed everything. Usually, the arrival of the American undergraduates brings with it a flurry of activity as they learn plants and start the annual plant census, a large and laborious task. However, with the season and the plants so far behind previous years, the students, now almost masters of plant identification, have simply become extra hands. Today, some assisted with the bi-weekly census of flowers in all of the experimental plots. Others helped to water the plots with an experimental water addition. Yesterday, others counted new seedlings, just breaking out of the ground on the upper slope, a task that occurs once a week. In all actuality, despite the winds, things in Dalbay have stayed relatively steady.

New Additions to Camp

Last night, all seven undergraduates, one teacher, and one project coordinator arrived safely in the Dalbay Valley. The journey was mostly uneventful, but the length of it gives a great picture of just how remote this camp site is.

From Ulaanbaatar, we boarded a small turbo-prop plane bound for the also small city of Muren. Flying on a mostly cloudless day, we could peek out the window at the vast expanses of empty steppe below. A tiny white speck, probably a herder’s ger, would occasionally appear from the brown and green folds in the earth. However, it was not until we reached Muren when something larger came into view. As the plane landed, it flew closely over the multi-colored rooftops sitting at the center of brown, square, fenced-off plots of land making up this city (town?). Landing on the dirt runway was smoother than expected.

Upon grabbing our baggage and meeting up with our trusty camp leader, Undrakh, he told us that we would have to spend the night in Muren instead of heading directly to camp. Rains in previous days had made the road to Dalbay muddy and the high noon heat made the stones on the gravel stretches hot and dangerous to the cars’ undercarriages.

So early the next day, we sped off from Muren on our way to the southern tip of Lake Hovsgol, a town called Hatgal. Currently, the Mongolian government has contracted with, as we’ve been told, the North Korean government to hire workers and machinery to build this road. For the past three years, the road has been unrecognizable to our American eyes, but this year, about one eighth of it was paved with asphalt. Driving on it was a truly luxurious experience, especially compared with what was to come.

After 2.5 hours we reached Hatgal and immediately took “the worst road in Mongolia” to the Dalbay Valley. For 7 hours, we bounced and tilted, even suffering a small problem with the transmission in one of the SUVs. Despite the pain in our butts and heads, the ride up to camp offers some of the best views of the trip– green meadows, towering mountains, and the bluest of blue lakes we had ever seen. While the wildflowers are not as plentiful along this route as in years prior (the season does not appear as far along as at this point in the past), some bright orange, white, and yellow hues still greeted us along the way.

On the road from Hatgal to Dalbay (Photo by Boldgiv 2011)

Finally, we reached Dalbay. A bowl of soup, a good night’s rest, and some scenic morning mist sends us off for our first day of work. Everyone else is certainly in their routine, scurrying up the hillside, gathering supplies, and discussing their plans for the day. For us, wide-eyed and still a bit jet-lagged, the pace is a bit slower. Learning and relearning all the plant species in the valley will take much of the first three days. So for the next few days, our wandering will be a little more aimless, and our sight will be focused a little bit lower.

Of Grasslands and Gerbils

I first heard about PIRE Mongolia while sitting in my first introductory biology class. Dr. Brent Helliker, put a powerpoint up for the class to see. I remember the first slide being of some alien-looking land that I had never seen of, despite all of my Google image searches of faraway places. Dr. Helliker enthusiastically told the class tales of delicious food, grass, and mysterious Mongolian yurt things (which I now know as gers!). The whole project sounded so exotic and exciting. How could I not apply to go on this wild adventure? Plus, the daily activities were going to consist of all science all day! What more could a wannabe biologist want in a summer adventure?

One wannabe biologist working in the lab…

After listening to past participants tell stories about riding little horses and eating yak meat, I have high hopes for this trip. I think every day in Mongolia is going to be awesome. In the early morning, maybe I’ll see the grazers munching along a fairy ring for a yummy nitrogenous breakfast. On some days I’ll run up to the upper slope to help complete a vegetation census, and on the way back roll all the way down the hill (Pierre says there are no pokey plants at the field site!). For lunch, perhaps I’ll eat yak soup while conversing with Mongolian undergrads. Later, in the late afternoon, I’ll spend my time at eye level with the Festuca grasses and their friends, piecing together clues to unlock every detail of their secret plant world. Perhaps in the evening I’ll wade into the third purest form of water of Lake Hövsgöl for an evening bath with my biodegradable soap. And when night has finally fallen, I’ll lay in my sleeping bag, dreaming of tomorrow’s adventures while the fire crackles softer and softer.

Though no one from the field has ever reported a wild Mongolian gerbil sighting, it could just be that they mistook a gerbil to be a ground squirrel. I am semi-determined to see a wild gerbil.

-Alysen Vilhena, rising Junior, University of Pennsylvania biology major, Philadelphia, PA, USA


Our thoughts regarding the slow start to the greening up of the steppe have been corroborated by Clyde Goulden (Natural Academy of Sciences at Drexel). Clyde reports that the herders he has been interviewing in the valleys east of Hövsgol Lake for the past few days agree that this spring is a “gan” (pronounced more like “gone”). A gan is the springtime equivalent of a “zud” (extremely harsh winter), and bad news if you’re a herder. It is characterised by a succession of hot days and cold nights, with very little rainfall, hence the normal springtime plant development is very slow, at a time vital for the recovery of animals after the winter and for those suckling young.

A storm rolls into the valley

Last night, at around 7 pm, it finally started to rain, perhaps marking an end to the gan? We had been expecting rain the past couple of days, an expectation predominantly driven by our native intuition, but also by the weather forecast off the television. The clouds toyed with us for a while, gathering over the mountains beyond the lake on Saturday morning, gathering further up the valley in the afternoon, and instrumentalised by long low thunder rolls. At 4 pm on Saturday, the sun was blocked out, but then at 5 pm it appeared again for a rather pleasant sunny evening. On Sunday morning there was the faintest drizzle as we passed to and fro between sleeping gers and the kitchen and office gers in the morning. You could see the individual raindrops hit the dust and leave a round dark spot, but the drizzle stopped before the dark round spots had chance to meet each other. And so, we had to wait all of Sunday until the rain finally started in earnest at 7 pm, and has continued – on and off – through to this Monday evening.

The good thing about having slightly colder damper weather is that it is easier to appreciate very hot soup. We have soup most days, generally for the evening meal. Most of the time it is vegetable soup featuring carrots, onions, potatoes and perhaps cabbage or peppers, in a lovely rich meaty stock, and of course interspersed with meat – either as small pieces or minced. Usually the soup is tasty, sometimes it is delicious!

The discerning amongst our readers may have read “weather forecast off the television” above, and had a doubt as to whether I was saying it matter-of-fact, or tongue-in-cheek. It is, in fact, the former – and this correspondent has to report a somewhat unexpected addition to the office ger equipment this year in the form of a battery-operated satellite television. The intention, I believe, is to allow camp members not to miss the sporting excitement of Summer 2012 – including the European Cup, and the London Olympics. Apparently, international football is very popular in Mongolia. For example, the herding family that live in the Dalbay Valley – the Hurtleys – installed a satellite television in order to watch the World Cup 2010. While I appreciate the attraction of football, I was rather surprised to hear that it was popular in Mongolia since you do not see football pitches either in the town or country, and I haven’t seen children playing football at all. The European Cup matches are not broadcast live on Mongolian television, and neither do we have any schedule, so it is by pure happen chance that I managed to watch both of the England games so far. I was left slightly discombobulated after the first match, against France, in which, at 1-1 with about 3 minutes of extra time still to play, the coverage was stopped in order to show the next non-live game. No indication of the final score was presented, so I am still unsure as to whether England clinched a winner in the final seconds.

The cuckoo still calls, though not quite so persistently as in early June. We sometimes hear a Siberian Roe deer barking at night, an eerie echoing call. We often see Black Kites with their distinctive forked tail, and the other day we saw an enormous bird fly over our heads as we kneeled at one of the plots. I only saw it from behind and guessed it to be a Golden Eagle, while Pierre, seeing also its head, labelled it as a vulture. I doubt we will ever settle this dispute. Finally, for birds of prey, I have just now seen a kestrel, hovering over the riparian zone waiting for an unlucky rodent. The camp crowd is also augmented, on and off, by domestic animals. The last time a yak was killed, we had six loitering dogs who one by one drifted away over a couple of days leaving a loyal black dog who still occasionally revisits us. Slightly less welcome (in my eyes at least) is a camp cat who spends about 80% of her time sleeping, and the rest lurking around, as cats do, occasionally succeeding in killing other unlucky rodents.

Ground squirrels beware…