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

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 fresh water to brines more saline than the oceans. The region is highly sensitive to climate variation, home to several rare and endangered animals, and the primary source of cashmere production in Mongolia by traditional nomads that are dependent on supply and quality of regional surface waters. The Mongolian government has striven to preserve 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. In spite of 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) will survey the distribution and biodiversity of diatoms, ostracodes, and chironomids of 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 serve well in developing an ecosystem management program for protection and sustainable use of the singular Valley of the Great Lakes and the Altai and Khangai highlands.<br/>Fifty lake and stream systems will be sampled and are expected to yield about 400 diatom, 200 ostracode, and 200 insect composite collections. 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 described as 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 dispersal 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.

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