Saltville, VA excavations
ETSU Researchers Discover Giant Bear and Other Ice Age Fossils in Saltville
JOHNSON CITY—East Tennessee State University paleontologists recently returned from conducting excavations at an Ice Age fossil site in Saltville, Va., where they rediscovered the location of a giant short-faced bear that researchers had been trying to relocate, leading to the discovery of more of the creature's remains.
The university-led excavations have focused in two areas, one of which held a mammoth skeleton that was heavily scavenged and chewed on by large carnivores. The second area contained a wide variety of fossils, ranging from giant short-faced bears to tiny salamanders and from musk-oxen to huge mammoths. This wide variety of fossils give researchers a more detailed picture of what the southern Appalachians were like at the very end of the last Ice Age, which is a time when climates were changing dramatically, people were just becoming established on the continent, and the megafauna, or large animals, were on the verge of extinction.
One of the most significant finds for the ETSU team was a simple rock, because in 2000 a giant short-faced bear jaw was recovered by another excavation team, and the location information for the dig, and the jaw, was lost. However, a picture existed of the jaw sitting next to a specific rock and the general area was known. After much searching for the past five years, the exact rock was rediscovered this year and the research team was able to put a cast of the jaw back in place and map it. As a result, paleontologists were able to continue the excavations in that area and recover more of the short-faced bear skeleton, including teeth. Scientists expect future digs to uncover much more.
The ETSU research team consists of Dr. Blaine Schubert, Dr. Jim Mead and Brian Compton. Schubert is the director of the Don Sundquist Center of Excellence in Paleontology, director of the ETSU and General Shale Brick Natural History Museum, and an associate professor in the Department of Geosciences. Mead is professor and chair of the Department of Geosciences and a curator at the museum. Compton is a surveyor and preparator at the museum.
The researchers were accompanied by ETSU's Sandra Swift, museum research technician, who oversaw the screenwashing activities, ETSU graduate students, other museum staff, students from other universities, and volunteers from as far as New York state. In addition, the ETSU Governor's School visited the site for one day to participate in the excavations, and there was a one day paleo camp for kids, which was overseen by Sarah Mullersman, museum education and exhibit coordinator.
Schubert has led excavations at Saltville since 2008, after a curation agreement was developed between the town and ETSU. ETSU maintains two major excavations, Saltville (which ranges in age from 11,000 to >40,000 years old), and the Gray Fossil Site (which dates to 4.5 to 7 million years old).
Fossils have been known from the Saltville Valley since the late 1700s, when Thomas Jefferson first wrote about the large animals recovered from there. At that time he thought that mammoths and other large critters may still be alive in western North America. Though a number of paleontologists have conducted work in the valley over the years, very little has been published to this point and much remains to be learned.
Gray Fossil Site Excavations
Paleontologists recently found a second type of beaver on site. Paleontologists found the site's first beaver several years ago. It is a small form about the size of a muskrat, which is smaller than modern beavers. This new find is significant because it is identical in size to the living beaver.
Because there are two types of beavers that have been discovered at the same locality, it suggests that although they are both in the beaver family, at least one of them (likely the smaller form) had a very different lifestyle, otherwise they would be competing for the same resources. This new find is yet another strong indication that the site represents a pond/lake ecosystem.
Like the first beaver specimen, this new find comes from the spoil pile remaining from the construction of the museum itself.
The 2012 dig season at the Gray Fossil Site helped to build on many of past years' discoveries. We continue to recover more of the large panda skeleton found last spring. Even today pickers are still processing the sediments found around the skeleton and recently found two of the missing teeth from the skull (including a canine) and several phalanges (finger bones).
The last dig season also led our paleontologists to recover new finds as well. Additional elements of a fragmented tortoise scattered over a large area were found. The jaws of a giant shrew were also discovered. Many new lizard and snake materials were recovered, including the first viper found on the site.
Our graduate students are also hard at work. Through their initiative, we have begun recovering and identifying some of the site's first significant insect material from the site. At this time, we are finding mostly beetles.
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