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Story published: 2/15/2004 • Print StoryE-mail Story to a FriendBack to Local News

Uncovering the tooth
Dr. Steven Wallace holds a rare red panda tooth found at the ETSU Gray Fossil Site. A picture of the red panda is in the background. (Angela Jones / Johnson City Press)
By Ben Ingram
Press Staff Writer

East Tennessee State University’s Hutcheson Hall is home to many rare and unique fossils, so why is a tooth getting all the attention?

When it happens to be the first recorded tooth from a red panda species never before found in North America, a bit of notoriety might be expected.

Dr. Steven Wallace, an ETSU paleontologist, reported that while this is the first of its species found on our continent, records of this type of tooth can be found elsewhere.

“There are records of this red panda tooth in Europe and China,” Wallace said. “Although, the red panda that many of us have seen at such places as the Knoxville Zoo is a different genus than the one this tooth belonged to.

“A colleague of mine actually found it on Jan. 31. As you can see, it’s taken a while to find out the specifics about the tooth. I’ve gone through stacks of literature in order to determine species, genus; there’s just a great deal to determine.”

Wallace said today’s red panda species is endangered, so this find could be invaluable when determining species evolution.

When it came down to explaining how one of these red panda fossils came to be at the Gray Fossil Site, located along Tenn. Highway 75, Wallace could only relay what history has taught us in continental and plate movement.

“As most already know, at different times in the earth’s history, the continents were said to have been aligned,” Wallace said. “Migration from Asia to North America would be a common thought as to how the tooth came to rest in Gray.

“It’s very similar to the tooth of today’s red panda, just more primitive.”

Wallace said that while this is the first of its kind on record in North America, a second red panda tooth from a different species was discovered in Washington state around 1977. A published account of the find, in Nature magazine, was used to confirm Wallace’s find, with the help of Xiaoming Wang of the Los Angeles Museum.

“This single tooth is an important find for us. A unique find in that you wouldn’t expect to unearth a fossil like this here; important in that it’s another link to the old world.”

The tooth is said to date between 4.5 million and 7 million years old.

From here, Wallace is looking to include this find in a paper he already has in the works about a previous find. He hopes to submit his report to Nature, as proof of a link to Asia in the form of fossils and the migrant animals they stemmed from.

“No one in the scientific world really cares about (the tooth) until (the paper) gets published,” Wallace said. “It’s the first correctly published name that counts.”

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