22 February 2012

Science Café: Journey to Tibet


Science is an adventure if you'€™re Magnet Lab geochemist Yang Wang. At the next Science Café, on Tuesday, March 6, Wang will share details about her trek to Tibet where she and others uncovered the oldest woolly rhino ever found -€” a discovery that made headlines around the world.

Yang Wang, a professor in geochemistry.Yang Wang, a professor in geochemistry, pauses for a picture in Zanda Basin in Tibet.Sponsored by the Magnet Lab, the café — from 6:15 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. at Ray'€™s Steel City Saloon, 515 John Knox Road — gives you the opportunity to meet dynamic scientists and hear their stories firsthand -€” not just Google them! Arrive early to grab a good seat.

In 2007, Wang accompanied a group of researchers to explore one of the world'€™s most isolated places: the Zanda (ZAH-dah) Basin, at the base of the Himalayan Mountains. The scientists — including paleontologists from California and China — hoped to uncover fossils that would reveal secrets about life on the planet during prehistoric times.

"We look at the chemistry of the teeth and bones, to see what the animals ate and what kind of environment they lived in," says Wang, a professor in the Department of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Science at Florida State University.

What scientists learned from chemically analyzing some of the fossils they discovered was significant. Their findings suggest that the woolly rhino, and perhaps other great prehistoric beasts, wandered and foraged across ancient earth in patterns not previously imagined.

Getting to, and working in, the remote Zanda Basin — a rugged paradise for fossil hunters — isn'€™t easy, however. The basin is nearly three-miles high, which means travelers there must first acclimate themselves or risk altitude sickness. In order to visit and work in the region, travelers also face frequent scrutiny from police at roadside checkpoints. Scientists must procure all the necessary papers and documents needed to do research in the area — a long and time-consuming task.

But the team'€™s discovery of the Tibetan woolly rhino (Coelodonta thibetana) made all the work worth it.

"This is the oldest, most primitive woolly rhino ever found," Wang says. "We were all very excited."

She plans to return to Tibet this summer, with the team led by Xiaoming Wang (no relation to Yang Wang), the curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles.

"Who knows what we might find when we return?" she says. "With fossils, you never know."