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Everest’s Paleontological Code: From Ancient Ocean to Snow-Capped Mountains

At the conclusion of April 2023, a paleontological scientific expedition, under the guidance of Su Tao, director of the Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden Institute of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, embarked on a field scientific investigation in the Everest region of the Himalayas. During this venture, they unravelled the “singular cipher” concealed within the paleontological organisms thriving in the Everest region.

What distinctive ciphers lie concealed within the paleontology of the Mount Everest region? In early May 2023, following more than ten days of scientific inquiry, Su Tao’s scientific expedition uncovered 15-million-year-old alpine oak foliage and subterranean horsetail vegetation within the rocky crevices situated at an elevation of 5,800 meters near Mount Everest. Additionally, they discovered tubers and other paleontological fossils.

Alpine oak, a member of the Quercus genus, is an evergreen arboreal species reaching heights of 30 meters. It is predominantly found in Tibet and other regions, flourishing within hillside and valley oak forests or pine oak forests situated at altitudes ranging from 2600 meters to 4000 meters. Alpine oak exhibits solitary leaves that are alternate, elliptical, or oblong, measuring 3 cm to 8 cm in length and 1.5 cm to 3 cm in width. These leaves possess a rounded or blunt apex, a rounded to shallow heart-shaped base, and a smooth or serrated margin. While young, they bear a rust-colored, velvety pubescence. In maturity, only the lower surface, excluding the midrib, retains a waxy rust-colored downiness. The flowers are monoecious, with pendulous catkins serving as male inflorescences, while the female flowers cluster within the leaf axils.

What connection does alpine oak share with the ecological milieu? What value does it hold? Alpine oak, as a primary constituent of the hard-leaved evergreen broad-leaved oak forest, yields substantial ecological repercussions. Possessing robust adaptability and resistance to environmental disturbances, this species boasts a well-developed root system and vigorous clonal growth capacity. It plays a critical role in soil and water preservation, along with water conservation in high-altitude arid regions. The bark of alpine oak harbors tannins, while its fruits encompass copious amounts of starch, protein, fat, vitamins, and other nutrients, endowing them with certain edible and medicinal properties. Furthermore, alpine oak serves as a companion tree species to the renowned edible fungus matsutake, bestowing it with considerable economic worth.

The scientific expedition team also unearthed a paleontological fossil of subterranean tuber belonging to the Equisetum genus within the Mount Everest region. Equisetum, also known as file grass, pen grass, or pen tube grass, is a perennial evergreen grass characterized by its stout, abbreviated rhizome, which exhibits hues of black and brown. The stem, upright in nature, is either solitary or sparsely branched at the base, measuring 6 mm to 8 mm in diameter. Hollow and knotted, the stem is adorned with a gray-green or yellow-green surface, featuring 20-30 longitudinal ridges and furrows that lend it a coarse texture. Equisetum thrives in shaded forest understories on hillside slopes, showing a predilection for wet habitats such as riverbank wetlands, streams, and overgrown areas. It holds immense medicinal value and is commonly employed in ophthalmology as a medicinal agent.

In January 2023, the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences assembled a team of over 20 scientific researchers specializing in diverse fields to embark on a scientific expedition aimed at investigating paleontology within the Tethys Himalayas. Their goal was to search for Mesozoic marine vertebrates in the Mount Everest region. Following months of arduous field expeditions, Deng Tao, director of the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, along with researcher Ni Xijun, led this scientific expedition in the Triassic period of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau (approximately 250 million to 200 million years ago), leading to the re-discovery and confirmation of Himalayan ichthyosaur fossils.

During mountaineering expeditions on Mount Everest and Shishapangma in the 1960s and 1970s, Academician Liu Dongsheng, Academician Qiu Zhanxiang, and their colleagues from the Chinese Qinghai-Tibet Scientific Expedition Team unearthed Triassic Himalayan ichthyosaur fossils for the first time. However, the ichthyosaur fossil remains discovered during this recent expedition consist solely of scattered bones, and due to the constraints of time and conditions, they were not adequately preserved. Consequently, the international paleontological community has questioned the existence of the “Himalayan ichthyosaur.”

What type of sea creatureThe ichthyosaur is a type of marine reptile that existed during the Mesozoic Era, particularly the Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous periods. These reptiles were well-adapted to an aquatic lifestyle and exhibited fish-like characteristics, hence the name “ichthyosaur,” which means “fish lizard” in Greek.

Ichthyosaurs had streamlined bodies, similar to modern dolphins, with a long snout, sleek fins, and a vertical tail fin. They possessed large eyes, indicating they were well-suited for hunting in the open ocean. Their limbs were modified into paddle-like structures, enabling efficient swimming. Some species reached lengths of up to 20 meters, making them among the largest marine reptiles that ever lived.

These reptiles were carnivorous, feeding on a variety of marine organisms, including fish, squid, and other marine reptiles. They were distributed worldwide and occupied a diverse range of ecological niches within marine ecosystems.

The re-discovery and confirmation of Himalayan ichthyosaur fossils in the Triassic period suggest that these marine reptiles once inhabited the ancient seas of the Himalayan region. Further analysis of the fossils and continued research will provide valuable insights into the evolution, paleoecology, and paleogeography of ichthyosaurs in this particular area and contribute to our understanding of marine life during the Triassic period.