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Mongolian Aquatic Insect Survey (MAIS)

Mongolian Aquatic Insect Survey collecting in a stream

The Mongolian Aquatic Insect Survey is a multi-year research project to document aquatic macroinvertebrate diversity and relate that diversity to patterns in evolution, ecology and water quality. Capacity building has also been accomplished through the establishment of environmental monitoring facilities, the development of water quality monitoring standards, and the training of Mongolian scientists and students.

Dr. Jon Gelhaus, a curator in the Academy's Entomology Department, is the lead Principal Investigator.

Additional information can be found at the Survey's research website,

Selenge River Basin Surveys (2003-2006)

Selenge Basin in Mongolia

The Selenge River Basin, which occupies more than 300,000 sq. km in north central Mongolia, is the most important watershed in the country. The capitol (Ulaanbaatar), as well as most of the population, agriculture and industry, lie within its boundaries. Its streams are becoming increasingly stressed by population growth, untreated waste, agriculture, mining, overgrazing, and climate change. The watershed also connects Lake Hövsgöl, one of the world's most pristine ancient lakes, with Lake Baikal, the world's oldest and most biologically diverse lake. (Lake Baikal is located in Siberia.) Steppe (grassland) and Forest-Steppe vegetation cover most of the watershed within the Mongolian portion of the Selenge Basin, while Taiga (northern conifer forest) is common along the north and east. Alpine tundra occupies parts of the higher mountains.

Jon Gelhaus surveying a stream

Since the beginning of field work in 2003, the survey has sampled more than 200 sites and collected more than 300,000 specimens of aquatic macroinvertebrates (insects, mollusks, crustaceans and other invertebrates). Most of these sites are in rivers or streams, but some are in freshwater and saltwater lakes, hot and cold springs, and marsh wetlands.

In addition to providing biodiversity data for environmental monitoring, the survey has yielded numerous new species and hundreds of new geographic records for known species in Mongolia. Over 20 publications from American, Mongolian and European colleagues have now been published and more papers are in preparation.

Western Endorheic Basins Surveys (2008-2010)

Endorheic Basins in Mongolia

The next stage for the Mongolian Aquatic Insect Survey took place in two large endorheic basins (closed or internal drainage basins) that lie to the west and southwest of the Selenge Basin. The aquatic habitats to be surveyed include headwater streams, larger streams, major rivers, ponds, wetlands, glacial lakes, and lowland freshwater and saline lakes.

The Depression of the Great Lakes (DGL) in western Mongolia (and part of Tuva, Russia) contains several large, shallow lakes. Uvs Lake (Uvs Nuur), with is vast wetlands, large flocks of waterfowl and high salinity, is the most notable of these. Airag, Hyargas, Khar-Us, Khar and Shargyn tsagaan are other large lakes in the basin. These lakes are primarily fed by rivers draining portions of the Hangai (also Khangai) and Mongolian-Altai mountain ranges. Desert Steppe accounts for most of the lowland vegetation. Mountain forest steppe, alpine tundra and steppe characterize upland vegetation.

The Valley of the Lakes (VOL), which contains several shallow, saline lakes, is bounded by the Hangai Mountains to the north and the Gobi-Altai Mountains to the south. Streams from the southern slopes of the Hangai Mountains account for most of the inflow; the northern slopes of the Hangai were studied during the Selenge Basin surveys. Desert Steppe covers most of the lowlands. Steppe and Mountain Forest Steppe cover much the slopes in the Hangai.

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Capacity Building

Members of the 2003 MAIS Survey

The Mongolian Aquatic Insect Survey is involved in the development of scientific research infrastructure and the training of students (i.e., capacity building). It has, in collaboration with the Institute of Meteorology and Hydrology (IMH), built the first research laboratory in Mongolia dedicated to the study of aquatic invertebrates. In February of 2009, a shipment containing approximately $55,000 worth of lab equipment and supplies was delivered to the project laboratory in Unalbaatar.

Biological assessment and water quality monitoring capabilities in Mongolia streams received a boost in 2010 with the addition of Dr. Alain Maasri. In addition to conducting biodiversity surveys in western Mongolia, Dr. Maasri will analyze samples from past and current MAIS surveys, develop bioassessment standards for monitoring Mongolia's water quality and train IMH staff in the implementation of these standards.

An international conference on Mongolian aquatic ecosystems and climate change was held in Ulaanbaatar on April 16, 2010. Dr. Gelhaus and Dr. Maasri both gave presentations on their research. Other researchers from Mongolia, Russia, and elsewhere in the United States also presented their work. This conference was the first of what's hoped to be many such conferences.

The survey has trained Mongolian students in field work and some of these have received additional training in the United States and are either currently enrolled in or have completed advanced degree programs. This year, five young Mongolian researchers associated with MAIS also presented their research at the international conference, including one who received first prize for her poster presentation. (More information on scientific infrastructure and research training can be found at the Mongolian Aquatic Insect Survey research website,

In addition to assisting Mongolian students, the Survey has afforded American students with exceptional research and learning opportunities. Two graduate students have participated in the survey, and the Academy's Research Experience for Undergraduates Fellowships(REU) program has sponsored Mongolia field work for four undergraduates.

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