The Diatoms, Ostracodes, and Chironomids of Western Mongolia’s Saline Lakes: Biodiversity, Ecology, and Research Applications

Funded by:

NSF Collaborative Research, East Asia and Pacific Program, Biodiversity Surveys & Inventories

Mark Edlund, Principal Investigator,
James Almendinger, Co-Principal Investigator,

Soninkhishig Nergui, National University of Mongolia
Khand Yondon, Monogolian Academy of Sciences
Emi Ito, University of Minnesota
Koen Martens, Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences
Leonard C. Ferrington Jr., University of Minnesota
Charles Umbanhower Jr., Saint Olaf College
R.W. Bouchard Jr., University of Minnesota

Western Mongolia -- spanning the Altai Mountains, the Valley of the Great Lakes, and the western Khangai highland steppes -- is one of the world's most significant ecological and cultural regions. It contains a tantalizing variety of lakes ranging from freshwater to brines more saline than the oceans. The region is highly sensitive to climate variation, home to several rare and endangered animals, and is the primary source of cashmere production in Mongolia by traditional nomads that are dependent on the supply and quality of regional surface waters. The Mongolian government is committed to preserving these natural and cultural resources by strictly protecting large expanses of this region and registering the area on the UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and World Heritage List.

Despite these efforts, little is known of the region's biological diversity or of using the organisms as a measure of ecosystem health and change. Therefore, during two field expeditions in 2004 and 2005, an international team of scientists (Mongolia, USA, Belgium) has begun to survey the distribution and biodiversity of diatoms, ostracodes, and chironomids of aquatic habitats in western Mongolia. These lesser known biological groups include algae (diatoms), the seed shrimps (ostracodes), and the non-biting midge insects (chironomids), which are among the most useful organisms for developing models to understand climate change and to evaluate water-quality.

The biodiversity surveys will form the basis of developing an ecosystem management program for protection and sustainable use of the Valley of the Great Lakes and the Altai and Khangai highlands. Fifty lake and stream systems will be sampled and are expected to yield about 400 collections of diatoms, 200 collections of ostracods, and 200 composite collections of insects. Samples will be studied using light and electron microscopes to identify approximately 450 to 600 species of diatoms, 50 species of ostracodes, and 50-60 species of chironomids. All groups are expected to have ten to twenty percent of the species undescribed and new to science.

Environmental data taken simultaneously with biological collections will allow calculation of species environmental preferences using multivariate statistical analyses, thereby laying the critical foundation for construction of water-quality and climate-change inference models.

Results will be presented in four formats: conventional scientific papers; a set of regional floras and faunas; a website for quick disssemination of data and results to an international audience; and archives of collections, species distributions, and habitat descriptions in international museum collections and databases that are web-accessible.

This project will provide infrastructural support for Mongolian collections and train two Mongolian graduate students and an American Ph.D. student through cooperative learning from US, Belgian, and Mongolian professionals to ensure a sound international scientific future for all countries involved. Lastly, because team members represent academic, research, and museum institutes, even broader audiences will be touched through exhibit programming and educational outreach.

A goal of this project is to develop identification guides to the fauna in the saline lakes of western Mongolia. As part of this objective, we have developed a preliminary guide with keys to the chironomid surface floating pupal exuviae from a subset of these lakes. Specifically this guide was developed from the material from 10 lakes which included a total of 58 taxa. A PDF file of this guide is available below. If you have questions regarding this guide contact Will Bouchard at In addition, two files are provided which contain data from these 10 lake sites. The first file includes taxa lists and abundance data from the ten sites. The second file provides the ranges of water quality parameters (i.e., nitrogen, phosphorus, conductivity, and chlorophyll a) and the average water quality value from which each taxon was collected.

photos of Mongolia

St. Croix Watershed Research Station


researchers in Mongolia

Mongolian landscape with tents

cover of Identification Guide and Key to Chironomid Pupal Exuviae in Mongolia Lakes