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History of MAIS

Our Start in Mongolia

The genesis of our work in Mongolia began with an invited visit by Dr. Clyde Goulden, of The Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia (ANSP) to Lake Hovsgol, the “Blue Pearl” of Mongolia in 1994, one of the world’s most pristine lakes. That scientific visit initiated a project, envisioned by Goulden and funded by the US National Science Foundation (NSF) for exploratory inventory work on the aquatic organisms of the lake and its tributaries. Three of the four American principal investigators with the Mongolian Aquatic Insect Survey date their research in Mongolia to that first project. In addition, two current faculty of the National University of Mongolia, Drs. Soninkhishig Nerqui and Boldgiv Bazartseren, started out as students participating on the Hovsgol project, and through those project links received training and support for their subsequent Ph.D. programs.


The need for the Mongolian Aquatic Insect Survey

Our work at Hovsgol Lake indicated there were a number of reasons to advance a national survey of the aquatic insect fauna of Mongolia.

There had been numerous joint national surveys for invertebrates in Mongolia during the Soviet era, including Russian, Polish, (East) German and Hungarian scientists, but the focus was generally on terrestrial insect groups. This was demonstrated in our own experience sampling the aquatic invertebrates of the limited watershed of Lake Hovsgol, in northern Mongolia during 1995-1997. We collected numerous new species and/or new country records of crane flies, caddisflies and stoneflies (Gelhaus and Podenas, 2006; Morse et al. 2006).

Aquatic macroinvertebrates can be useful organisms for exploring historical biogeography, speciation, and other evolutionary processes; seminal work in biogeography and phylogenetics has arisen from study of freshwater insects (Brundin 1966, Ross 1967) and continues with our work (Nelson, 2004, Nelson and Giuliani, 2001, Stark and Nelson, 1994; Gelhaus, 2005; Morse and Yang, 2002, Morse et al. 2002). Groups like stoneflies, crane flies and mayflies show strong levels of endemicity (Zhiltzova 1997, Landa and Soldan, 1994, Gelhaus and Podenas, 2006). Ecologically and biogeographically, Mongolia forms a transition area for biological diversity in central Asia, not only because of its position between the Palearctic and Oriental biotic regions, but also due to the convergence of the taiga forest, steppe, mountains, and Gobi desert.

Freshwater resources for Mongolia are limited and under pressure from man’s activities and a warming climate. Aquatic invertebrates, particularly insects, are important biological indicators used routinely for assessing water quality. Although monitoring of water quality by studying biological indicators (such as macroinvertebrates) is well accepted in developed countries, it was only in 1998 that the first training in Mongolia was given by MAIS researcher Morse. There are many threats to water quality and quantity, and to the aquatic insect communities, including mining (Choi et al. 2004), proposed impoundments, increased grazing, and global climate change (Hovsgol Ecology 2005, Tsogtbaatar and Goulden 2000), the latter leading to increased intermittency of streams which we have observed particularly along the northern slopes of the Hangai Mountains.

Establishment of the Mongolian Aquatic Insect Survey

The first project of MAIS was to undertake a comprehensive survey of the Selenge River basin, in 2002-2006, funded by the USA National Science Foundation (DEB-BSI #0206674, “Selenge River Basin survey” to J. Gelhaus, J.Morse, B. Hayford). The Selenge River Basin is in northcentral Mongolia, about 800 km in east/west distance, 400-500 km. in north/south distance, and encompasses three major mountain chains, the Hentii (Hentiy), Hangai (Hangay), and Sayan Mountains. The area drained by the Selenge River watershed ranges from peaks above 2000-3000 meter elevation in the three mountain chains, to slightly below 1000 meters in the lower Selenge system, where it enters Russia. The Selenge System includes much of the freshwater resources for Mongolia, including Lake Hovsgol, and the River Tuul, the major river serving the capital city Ulaanbaatar, as well as most other cities such as Sukhbaatar, Darhan, Bulgan, and Moron.

Selenge Basin Survey Activities

Sampling and Identification
The Selenge Basin Survey focused on goals sampling a variety of aquatic habitats and taxa, and developing scientific infrastructure and training. We carried out four large expeditions exploring the southern and western drainages of the Hentii Mountains (2003), the northern drainages of the Hangai Mountains (2004) the central and northern drainages of the Selenge River (2005) and the isolated Darkhad Basin (2006). We sampled 209 separate sites including rivers and streams primarily, but also fresh and salt water lakes, hot and cold springs, and marsh wetlands. Fieldwork was accomplished by 14 Mongolian, USA, and European scientists. In addition we included two US graduate students, four US undergraduate students, and nine young Mongolian researchers. This model of an international group of scientists and students carrying out fieldwork while providing opportunities for training remains what we follow today in the current Mongolian Altai survey.

A diverse range of taxa was sampled, primarily insects, but including 7 Phyla, 12 Classes, 25 Orders, and 98 Families with collection of associated data at each site including geographic coordinates (GIS), water chemistry and habitat characterization. Diptera (true flies) and Trichoptera (caddisflies) were most diverse at the family level. Samples were estimated at approximately 300,000 specimens in just the first three years (2003-2005) (including bulk samples), with the focus being the preparation and identification of the target taxa of the principal investigators and close participants. Species of the following aquatic groups were identified to species: Trichoptera, Diptera (Tipuloidea, Chironomidae, Blephariceridae, Ptychopteridae, Sciomyzidae, Simuliidae), Plecoptera, Ephemeroptera, Coleoptera (Hydrophilidae, Dytiscidae, Hydraenidae, Haliplidae), and Odonata. In addition, amphibians, fish, diatoms and rotifers were identified from our samples. New species of Diptera (true flies), Trichoptera (caddis flies) and Coleoptera (beetles) have been described from this effort.

Training and Infrastructure Development

Our program trained 14 USA and Mongolian students who participated in the field studies during the Selenge Basin Survey. Our initial six Mongolian student researchers mastered the systematics of their particular focus taxa, wrote scientific papers and gave presentations at international meetings. Five of these researchers visited the USA for extended training one or more times, and three worked in Europe with our collaborators. Four other young Mongolian researchers received field training, and one, an employee of the Mongolian Institute of Meteorology and Hydrology (IMH), studied Odonata with a project collaborator in the USA. Five of our Mongolian researchers (Enkhtaivan, Chuluunbat, Enkhnasan, Monkhjargal, Uugantsetseg) initiated and three (Enkhtaivan, Chuluunbat, Enkhnasan) completed Masters degrees during our first project period 2002-2007. Chuluunbat entered the graduate entomology program at Clemson University in systematics, while Enkhtaivan entered a Masters program at Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology in aquatic biomonitoring research, both completing their degrees in 2008.

We worked with over 70 collaborators and organizations. Particularly close collaborations were with and remain with the Mongolian Institute of Meteorology and Hydrology (IMH) (Drs. Azzaya and Davaa), and the Entomology Section of the Mongolian Academy of Sciences (MAS, Dr. Namkhaidorj, Ms. Enkhnasan). This Project provided their staff with training opportunities in the USA and with equipment. In 2004, we secured in IMH a large laboratory space and storeroom to house MAIS researchers, supplies and collections and developed the MAIS laboratory. We filled an entire 8X8X20ft shipping container with museum cabinets (from ANSP) and other museum supplies (ANSP, Smithsonian), along with 200 boxes of donated scientific books and supplies. The museum cabinets and supplies were distributed to the IMH/Selenge Project lab, MAS (Entomology), the NUM (herbarium), the State Pedagological University (Herpetology), and Institute of Geoecology (Hovsgol GEF Project).


Selenge Survey Scientific Findings

Over 38 publications, including papers from American, Mongolian, and European colleagues were formally published during the Selenge Project period. A volume of 20 papers summarizing the research on Lake Hovsgol, The Geology, Biodiversity and Ecology of Lake Hovsgol, Mongolia, was published in Feb. 2006 (Goulden et al. 2006). Four theses are based entirely on the Selenge survey’s samples: Chuluunbat 2005 (Trichoptera); Enkhtaivan 2004 (Ephemeroptera), Enkhnasan 2007 (Dyticidae) and Uuganaatsetseg 2008 (Diatoms). An additional Ph.D. dissertation relied on project expertise for taxonomic identification and project design (Boldgiv 2006). Three websites were developed. The Selenge Project researchers gave a combined 66 presentations in 2002-2007 to international and national professional society meetings, and invited talks to diverse audiences such as university classes, evening public lectures, reporters and embassy personnel.

Results ranged from new species descriptions and new country records, novel observations of behavior, analysis of taxa richness and species turnover rates and development of tools for identification. We summarize a few briefly here:


For mayflies (Ephemeroptera), project collaborator Tomas Soldan, Czech Academy of Sciences and MAIS researcher Sanaa Enkhtaivan, have studied our mayfly specimens from the Hovsgol survey (Enkhtaivan and Soldan, 2008) and the Selenge Project. The Selenge Survey material has increased the number of species for Mongolia by 26 spp., including 1 family (Soldan and Enkhtaivan, in preparation), and possibly 1-2 new spp. The total mayfly fauna is now at least 110 spp., over 40 species more from pre-survey totals.

Crane flies

Our sampling for crane flies (Diptera: Tipuloidea) has documented that the Mongolian stream crane fly fauna is dominated by the subgenus Tipula (Arctotipula) (two species new to science, three new country records, Gelhaus et al. 2000) and we have associated the aquatic larvae of most of these species, and developed a key (Podeniene et al. 2006). Our Selenge surveying (2002-2006) has increased the number of species of crane flies for Mongolia to 299 (Gelhaus et al. in prep), a 64% increase in species over our knowledge in 2001. This includes discoveries of 15 new species total since 1995 (Podenas and Gelhaus, 2001, also in prep.) and the first discovery of the family Cylindrotomidae (4 spp. now known, Gelhaus et al., 2007). In addition, the first in a series of regional identification keys is complete (Podenas and Gelhaus, 2007). Also, Ph.D. research by B. Boldgiv (2006) on the population genetics of several Mongolian crane fly species has developed DNA bar codes for nearly 70 species, which has already proved useful for identifying immature stages and understanding evolutionary relationships (Gelhaus et al. in preparation).


A remarkable new species of caddisfly (Trichoptera), the flightless Limnephilus hovsgolicus Morse, 1999 (Limnephilidae) was discovered along the shore of Lake Hovsgol and showed remarkable convergence in adult morphology to other unrelated flightless species in Lake Baikal and elsewhere, allowing the adults to skate across the lake surface (Morse, 1999). Another skating species, new for science, in a different family (Phryganeidae) was caught during our 2004-2006 expeditions (Morse and Chuluunbat, 2007). Adults of three other species were observed with peculiar sprawling behavior, hiding under rocks near water, not observed previously for caddisflies (Chuluunbat and Morse, 2007).

Aquatic Midges

The predominance of chironomids in many aquatic ecosystems (upwards of 50% of diversity in many aquatic habitats) and their ability to exploit a wide range of environmental conditions makes them an important group to study in terms of systematics, aquatic ecology, and biological monitoring (Pinder, 1995, Coffman and Ferrington, 1996). Preliminary analysis of chironomid diversity from streams of the Gorkhi Terelj Park indicates very high turnover rates of species between adjacent watersheds (Hayford and Gotov, in preparation).

On-going work of MAIS (2008- present)

New funding in 2008 by the USA-NSF allowed MAIS to extend its research program to western Mongolia, this current Mongolian Altai Survey funded by the USA National Science Foundation (DEB-BSI #0743732, “Altai and Hangai survey”, to J. Gelhaus, J.Morse, C. R. Nelson). The new areas we are inventoring through our existing expeditionary protocols and team are the endorheic (closed) drainage basins of the Mongolian Altai, Turgen and Tagnin Mountains in the west (Depression of the Great Lakes) and closed basin between the Hangai and Gobi-Altai Mountains, draining the southern tributaries of the Hangai Mountains (Valley of the Lakes). These drainage basins adjoin the Selenge Basin on the west and south. The endorheic drainages ending often in freshwater or saline basin lakes are exactly where one would predict a higher level of endemism in the aquatic invertebrates, based on studies in similar basins like the North American Great Basin (Hershler et al. 2002). In addition, relationships among these taxa should be closer to others within these basins, rather than to those in other drainages (such as the Selenge), as noted by Peters (1985) for even highly vagile dragonflies (Odonata).

Approximately 300,000 people inhabit this region, about half living in the province centers, and the dominant land use is pastoralism by nomadic herders. Because of the limited potable water, freshwater sources are under impact from grazing, and increasing demand for development of mining and hydropower. As of 2008, none of the rivers had major dams, but four large projects are proposed for the Khovd and Zavhan Rivers. The rivers appear to have relatively pristine levels of macroinvertebrates (Zagas, 2003). The gap of knowledge in aquatic macroinvertebrates is a target in the report by Batima et al. (2004). Shrinking glaciers and melting permafrost were noted in 2003 (Batnasan et al, 2004) and we are sampling those aquatic habitats that will likely be first impacted: headwater streams, small ponds and marshes.

A Special Acknowledgement

We acknowledge and thank Dr. Clyde Goulden, a well deserved recipient of the Mongolian Friendship Medal for his scientific and environmental activities, for introducing many of us to Mongolia and developing a model of research, training and improving scientific infrastructure. We also acknowledge our many colleagues – Mongolian, European and American – for their help in making MAIS a success.



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Batima, P., N. Batnasan and B. Lerner. 2004. Freshwater systems of the Great Lakes Basin, Mongolia: Opportunities and challenges in the face of climate change. WWF Mongolia Programme Office, Ulaanbaatar, 95pp.

Boldgiv, B. 2006. Spatial and genetic patterns of crane flies (Diptera: Tipuloidea) from Lake Hövsgöl region, Mongolia. Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Pennsylvania. 178 pp.

Brundin, L. 1966. Transantarctic relationships and their significance as evidenced by chironomid midges. With a monograph of the subfamilies Podonominae and Aphroteniinae and the austral Heptagyinae. Svenska Vtenskapsakademie Handlungen 11: 1-472.

Choi, J., M. Badarch, J. Lee, Y. J. Lee, E. Badarch. 2004. Joint Pilot Studies between Korea and Mongolia on Assessment of Environmental Management System in Gold Mining Industry of Mongolia. KEI. WO-O7. Policy Reports.

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Enkhtaivan, S. and T. Soldan, In Preparation. The first record of the family Acanthometropodidae (Ephemeroptera) in Mongolia

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Morse, J.C., and L. Yang. 2002. Phylogeny, classification, and historical biogeography of world species of Mystacides (Trichoptera: Leptoceridae), with a new species from Sri Lanka. Pages 173-186 in W. Mey (editor), Proceedings of the 10th International Symposium on Tricoptera, Potsdam, Germany, July 30-August 5, 2000, Goecke & Evers, Keltern, Germany, Deutsches Entomologisches Institut, Nova Supplementa Entomologica, 15.

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