Recent Discoveries

A tapir skull is jacketed in the excavation pit.

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 - 2013 Field Season

Alligators, red pandas, camels, and beavers have highlighted the 2013 field season at the East Tennessee State University and General Shale Natural History Museum and Visitors Center at the Gray Fossil Site. Throughout 2013, paleontologist found new species and added a variety of specimens to the collections of fossils that have been found during previous dig seasons.

"This has been a good year for us," said Dr. Steven Wallace, museum curator and Gray Fossil Site director "We had a busy field season and were able to find a new beaver, horse material, more panda, camel, and more than one 3D tapir skull. Several of these finds were from our spoil piles, which are piles of dirt that were moved during construction of the museum in 2005."

The 2013 finds include a second type of beaver, which was found in the spoil piles. The first one, found several years ago, is the size of a muskrat. This new find is the same size as beavers today. Having two types of beavers at the same locality suggests that they had very different lifestyles; otherwise they would be competing for the same resources.

Alligators have been a highlight from the dig season as well. A nearly complete skeleton with skull and jaws was recovered late in the field season. Several isolated bones found near the primary alligator skeleton, suggest that a second individual is present. Paleontologists hope to recover more of this second individual next summer.

A tibia, or shinbone, similar in size to that of a Fisher, a medium-sized member of the weasel family, was found in several pieces. One section was recovered in place, whereas the other was within a jacket containing alligator material.

"We haven't found any carnivorans of this size," said Wallace, "so the tibia represents a new species for Gray!"

A summer-camper found a peccary tusk in one of the spoil piles. Peccaries are America's version of a pig. Today's peccaries are much smaller than the fossil forms found at Gray. Most live in Central and South America, but the collared peccary spills into southwestern U.S. deserts.

"Even though we have at least three kinds of peccaries at Gray, they are rare at the site, so every specimen is important," said Wallace.

Several other rare finds were discovered during the field season, such as a camel hoof core, which is significant because camels are rare at Gray. Excavators also uncovered a few 3D tapir skulls, which are unusual because sediment in Gray is clay as opposed to rock, so fossils have been compressed over time, which leads to most skulls found at Gray being crushed. Museum preparators generally spend several weeks piecing together each skull found.

Paleontologists also found more red panda material, which is becoming one of the common animals at the site. Red panda fossils have been recovered in all the test pits at Gray. Some of the panda fossils found represent individuals that are at least three times the size of a living red panda.

This year more focus has been placed on recovering microfossils, which has led to the discover of several associated rabbit teeth, a squirrel jaw with teeth , which is likely a small chipmunk, bird material, snakes, and lizards. In fact, enough salamander material was recovered that a graduate student (Hannah Darcy) will be studying the finds for her thesis. In addition, Sandy Swift, ETSU Vertebrate Paleontology Laboratory Collections Manager, Jim Mead, ETSU Geosciences Chair and Professor, and Blaine Schubert, Director of the Center of Excellence in Paleontology and its Natural History Museum, are currently working on a small bone that belongs to an extinct form of venomous snake. To identify the bone requires that the same bone from all forms of pit vipers from North America, Central America, and eastern Asia be photographed and analyzed. The big project on the small bone is nearing completion.

Big Red Panda News!
The Museum has uncovered a second, larger fossil red panda skeleton!  Click here to read more about this exciting discovery!