The Dinosaurs of Flaming Cliffs Formation

The Flaming Cliffs of Mongolia
Wikimedia Commons



Date of Fossil Sediments

Late Cretaceous (85 million years ago)

Dinosaurs Discovered

Protoceratops, Oviraptor, Velociraptor, Therizinosaurus

About the Flaming Cliffs Formation

Not all parts of the world had substantially different climates 85 million years ago than they do today. During the late Cretaceous period, for example, Antarctica was much more temperate than it is now, but Mongolia's Gobi Desert seems to have been as hot, dry and brutal as it's always been. We know this from the fact that so many of the dinosaur fossils unearthed at the Flaming Cliffs formation appear to have been buried in sudden sandstorms, and that very few large dinosaurs (which would have needed equally large amounts of vegetation to survive) lived here.

Flaming Cliffs was explored in 1922 by the buccaneering explorer Roy Chapman Andrews, who made one of paleontology's enduring mistakes when he accused Oviraptor of stealing eggs belonging to Protoceratops (it was determined, decades later, that the Oviraptor specimen had been guarding its own eggs). This site is also close to the region where researchers unearthed the tangled remains of a Protoceratops and a Velociraptor, which appear to have been locked in a death struggle at the time of their sudden demise. When dinosaurs died at Flaming Cliffs, they died quickly: burial by fierce sandstorms is the only way to account for the discovery of this dinosaur pair (as well as numerous, near-complete Protoceratops skeletons found standing in the upright position).

One of the things that makes Flaming Cliffs such a romantic fossil destination is its utter remoteness, geographically speaking, from any nearby outposts of civilization; the most densely inhabited regions of China are at least a thousand miles away. When Andrews made his historic trip a century ago, he had to take along provisions worthy of a polar expedition, including a large team of local guides mounted on horseback, and he set off in a blizzard of press coverage and popular adulation (in fact, Andrews was at least partly the inspiration for Harrison Ford's character in the Indiana Jones movies.) Today, this region of Mongolia is a bit more accessible to devoted paleontologists, but still not a place the average family would choose to go on vacation.

Some of the other dinosaurs discovered at Flaming Cliffs (beside the famous ones related above) include the long-armed Deinocheirus (now identified as a "bird mimic" dinosaur, along with its Mongolian contemporary Gallimimus), the tyrannosaurs Alioramus and Tarbosaurus, and the bizarre, shaggy Therizinosaurus.