ETSU paleontologists collaborate with Chinese scientists

Mead and Ya Ling

JOHNSON CITY (Sept. 30, 2013) – East Tennessee State University paleontologists Dr. Blaine Schubert, Dr. Jim Mead and Dr. Yusheng “Christopher” Liu recently traveled to China for an international conference, “History of Life Evolution in Critical Geologic Periods: Sino-U.S. Critical Transitions Workshop.” The conference was jointly funded by the National Science Foundation of China and the United States National Science Foundation. 

Scientists were able to foster collaboration between U.S. and Chinese researchers in the field of paleontology and share research results. Conference attendees included approximately 75 Chinese researchers and 15 invited U.S. researchers.  The ETSU contingent represented the largest group from a single institution.  All three paleontologists gave presentations focused on research at the Gray Fossil Site. 

The Gray Fossil Site dates to around 4.5-7 million years old and represents the only site in eastern North America that preserved plants and animals from a forested environment during the late Miocene Epoch.  This time demonstrates a critical transition because the climate was changing, grasslands were replacing forested environments, and many species either went extinct or appeared in the fossil record.

“Because the Gray Site serves as a forested refuge for now-extinct plants and animals, it captures remnants of a forested connection that stretched from North America to eastern Asia,” said Schubert. “As a result, many of the species recovered from Gray are more closely related to modern Asian species than to anything living in North America today, such as the red panda and Eurasian badger.  As we continue excavating in Gray, it is important to compare similar aged fossils from both places to better understand dispersal and evolution of related plants and animals.” 

Schubert and Mead also spent a week in Beijing studying fossils at the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology (IVPP).  There they worked with Chinese collaborators and students on various research projects, including fossil carnivores and reptiles from caves in Guangxi, southern China.

Work from the trip is resulting in a number of manuscripts that will be published over the next year. ETSU researchers will seek funding to travel back to China next summer to do fieldwork in caves and study fossils at the IVPP.  In addition, they plan to further develop a student exchange program for paleontology students that began two years ago, and continue hosting Chinese scientists at ETSU. 

Schubert is the director of the Don Sundquist Center of Excellence in Paleontology and the ETSU and General Shale Natural History Museum, as well as a faculty member in the Department of Geosciences.  Mead is chair of the Department of Geosciences and a curator at the museum.  Liu is a faculty member in the Department of Biological Sciences and a museum curator, and recently began an appointment as a program director in sedimentary geology and paleobiology at the U.S. National Science Foundation. 

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