NMU Group Researches Biodiversity in Mongolia

Setting up the ger to sleep in
Setting up the ger to sleep inSpecimen preparation table
Specimen preparation tableBott (foreground) preparing museum specimens
Bott (foreground) preparing museum specimens

Northern Michigan University Professor Kurt Galbreath and four students depart for Mongolia July 17 to study the biodiversity of mammals and parasites in remote regions. They will collect specimens and extract DNA for genetic clues as to how climate change and other factors influence population patterns. 

“There has not been much research done in Mongolia,” Galbreath said. “It is important to establish a baseline of what species are found there now. Then you can look at how they came to be there and how they interacted with established species on their arrival. When you resample years later, you can determine how the biodiversity changed as environments were impacted. The specimens that we collect and archive in museum collections and their associated information will be tracked through an online database and can be mined for other research purposes.”

Galbreath said ice ages over the past few million years caused glaciers to expand and sea levels to drop, intermittently exposing a section of sea floor between eastern Russia and northwest Alaska that became the Bering Land Bridge. This connector served as a migration route for humans, animals and plants. It had a significant impact on the biology of North America. A $225,000 National Science Foundation grant is funding Galbreath’s role in a collaborative study on patterns of biological diversity established over the course of these climatic changes.

Galbreath previously conducted similar research with NMU students in Canada’s Yukon and Northwest Territories. He had intended to lead a trip to the Altei mountain region of central Siberia, but tenuous Russia-U.S. relations thwarted that plan. Because the mountain range also extends to Mongolia, Galbreath redirected his plan and led students on the first expedition there last summer.

“It will be easier this time, knowing what to expect,” Galbreath said. “Mongolia is a starkly different place—wide open, few trees and a culture based on herding livestock, which eat vegetation down to the ground. But the people are very welcoming. And from a biologist’s perspective, there’s an extraordinary diversity in organisms compared with the Upper Peninsula, for example. That’s partly because the country sits on a transitional zone between desert and boreal forest environments. We’re collecting dozens of different species.”

Student Alex Bott of Marquette was a member of last summer’s Mongolia research team. In a presentation to the NMU Board of Trustees, she eloquently described how she was impacted by the experience.

“Spending six weeks in a foreign country was a little nerve-wracking because I had never really left Marquette for an extended time,” she said. “But it broadened my horizons. I learned so much about biology and what it really means to do work in the field. I felt I was contributing not only to this project, but something much bigger—the advancement of science.

“Experiencing the culture was also influential. I ate a lot of sheep meat and fry bread. I liked yak milk. And I taught some English to a couple of Mongolian students, which made me feel more passionate than expected to the point I decided I wanted to major in education. It was the trip of a lifetime, and I thank Dr. Galbreath and the NMU biology department for the opportunity.”

This summer’s team includes undergraduate students Justin Linn of Gwinn, Christina Fragel of Grand Rapids and Lily Moncman of Saginaw. Graduate student Genevieve Haas of Big Bay will be making her second trip to Mongolia. The group will return in late August. 

Prepared By
News Director
July 11, 2016