New finds highlight 2013 at Natural History Museum, Gray Fossil Site

Alligator skull fossil

JOHNSON CITY (Dec. 23, 2013) – 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 Visitor Center at the Gray Fossil Site.

Throughout the year, paleontologists 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 3-D 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.  The new find is the same size as modern beavers.  Having two types of beavers at the same locality, ETSU paleontologists say, suggests that they had very different lifestyles; otherwise they would have competed for the same resources.

Alligators were a highlight from the season, as well.  A nearly complete skeleton with skull and jaws was recovered late in the field season, and several isolated bones found near this skeleton suggest that a second individual is present.  Paleontologists hope to recover more of the second specimen 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 found during processing in the lab.

“We haven’t found any carnivores of this size, so this tibia represents a new species for Gray,” Wallace said.

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,” Wallace said.

Several other rare finds were discovered this year, such as a camel hoof core, which Wallace says is significant because camels are rare at Gray.  Excavators also uncovered a few 3-D tapir skulls, which are unusual because sediment in Gray is clay as opposed to rock; because of this, fossils have been compressed over time, which has led 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, and some of these 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 discovery of several associated rabbit teeth, a squirrel or small chipmunk jaw with teeth, bird material, snakes and lizards.  Enough salamander material was recovered that graduate student Hannah Darcy will study the finds for her thesis.

In addition, three ETSU paleontologists have teamed up to work on a small bone that belongs to an extinct form of venomous snake.  To identify this bone requires that the same bone from all forms of pit vipers from North America, Central America and eastern Asia be photographed and analyzed.  This big project on the small bone is nearing completion by Sandy Swift, collections manager of the ETSU Vertebrate Paleontology Laboratory; Dr. Jim Mead, professor and chair of the Department of Geosciences; and Dr. Blaine Schubert, director of the Center of Excellence in Paleontology and its Natural History Museum.

The museum, located 1.8 miles off Exit 13 on Interstate 26, is open Tuesday-Saturday from 9 a.m.-5 p.m.; the museum will be closed from Dec. 24-Jan. 1 in observance of the holidays.  For more information, call (866) 202-6223 or visit www.etsu.edu/naturalhistorymuseum.  For disability accommodations, call the ETSU Office of Disability Services at (423) 439-8346.

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