Liu prospecting for bones, teeth, and scales in Qaidam Basin, Tibetan Plateau. The hilly formations in the background are wind-sculptured "clay terraces" called Qaidam yardangs.
Liu (far right) and colleagues Gary Takeuchi (center) and Z. Jack Tseng working in the field in the newly discovered site in Zanda Basin.
Aerial view of Liu and colleagues at the fossil locality, where she made the discovery on the Tibetan plateau. The hilly formations in the background are the Zanda Earth Forest.
Release Date: May 10, 2018
BUFFALO, N.Y. — In 2010, Juan Liu was a doctoral student in paleontology on an expedition to remote Tibet with several other researchers from Los Angeles and Beijing. Known as the “roof of the world,” the Tibetan plateau is an average of 4,950 meters — about 16,000 feet — above the sea.
Eager to find new specimens, Liu and her colleagues chose to explore an area called the Zanda Basin, where the combination of high elevation and freezing temperatures create conditions so harsh that expeditions can only take place there during July and August. It takes four days to get there from Lhasa, the Tibetan city itself known as one of the world’s highest cities, where many tourists experience memorable bouts of altitude sickness.
“We traveled far away because you have a better chance to discover new things,” said Liu, now an assistant professor in the Department of Pathology and Anatomical Sciences in the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at the University at Buffalo.
“The overall elevation in that area is 3,600 meters, so everybody walked slowly, no one was running or jumping because of the extra stress the elevation can put on your body,” she said.
In the early morning of the first working day, Aug. 7, 2010, at Zanda Basin, Liu spotted fragments of bones on a rocky hill. “I started to call everyone over,” she said. “We all carried walkie talkies so I said, ‘I found something.’ Some were reluctant as they had just jumped out of the vehicle and were eager to prospect fossils. A few others came and we started digging down.”
What they found, she recalled, was a veritable trove of fossils. “It was filled with bones, teeth, even skulls. It was like a treasure. You would never know it from the surface,” she said.
It turned out that among the many findings was a new fossil hamster genus and species. A paper about the new discovery was published earlier this year in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology. The genus and species was named Aepyocricetus liuae, with the second word clearly referencing Liu in the etymology of the new species. The paper also describes the etymology of the new species; apeys means high in Greek, combined with cricetus, which means living hamster, so the genus name literally means high hamster.
Asked how she felt about having a new fossil named for her, Liu said: “I am immensely honored and thrilled. I am a junior faculty member and I am only beginning to make an intellectual contribution to the field. Usually, when a new species is named after someone, it is for a senior colleague in the discipline or a collector with many years of experience. Now I have to live up to the high hamster name.”
According to first author Qiang Li, who praised Liu’s research skills in the field and laboratory, the new fossil was named after her because she discovered the Tibetan locality where these fossil hamster specimens and hundreds of others were collected.
Liu also was a participant at other sites on the harsh Tibetan Plateau, including Qaidam Basin, with an average altitude of as much as 3,000 meters and the Kunlun Pass Basin, with an altitude of approximately 4,600 meters (about 15,000 feet). She had joined the Tibetan Plateau research group along with Z. Jack Tseng, PhD, also a UB professor, and researchers from the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County and the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
The recent publication provides new information about how small mammals adapted to the cold climate and what their migration patterns were on the Tibetan plateau during the Pliocene era, from about 5.3 to 2.58 million years ago.