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These woods are strangely familiar

Jan Hearne • Mar 26, 2012 at 8:38 AM

A walk in these woods seems familiar. Hickory and oak trees drop leaves on the forest floor. Pine needles, acorns and hickory nuts crunch underfoot on a path worn by animals making their way to the nearby pond.

It seems a bit warm for this time of year, and strangely devoid of humans, but recognizable, nonetheless, until ... Was that a tapir?

Though it’s not possible to know for sure, researchers at the Gray Fossil Site can describe what life was like in this area 4.5 to 7 million years ago based on their discoveries.

“(The forests) were very similar to what we have today,” Dr. Steven Wallace, curator of the East Tennessee State University and General Shale Brick Natural History Museum, said. “The climate was warmer by a few degrees, just enough to get alligators up here.”

Yes, alligators. Wallace said they have found alligator fossils “curled up” as if perhaps burrowing and others flat out “like Superman.”

Though clearly recognizable as alligators, the fossils suggest some variation on our present-day reptiles. “The species we’ve got would have had slightly different tolerances,” Wallace said.

The slightly warmer temperatures during the late Miocene era did make life possible for a variety of animals lost from this area; they would be recognizable but undoubtedly look out of place.

That stroll to the pond might offer a glimpse of a saber tooth cat, about the size of a lion; three different kinds of peccary, a piglike mammal now ranging from the U.S. Southwest to South America; pot-bellied rhinos; short-faced bears; red pandas, albeit larger ones than found at the Knoxville Zoo; camels; shovel-tusked elephants; and a lot of tapirs.

“Tapirs are by far the most common animal at this site,” Wallace said. “If you were walking around this forest, these guys would be running around.”

Tapirs are found in great numbers because of the pond that once covered acres of land in Gray. The fossil deposit covers 4 to 5 acres, but it may have been 10 acres originally, Wallace said, adding, “We haven’t found the edges yet.” When researchers do, they hope to find more complete animals closer to shore.

Tapirs are water lovers and browsers, which is why so many tapir fossils are being found at the site. “It may be the ideal habitat for them,” Wallace said.

One horse tooth has been found at the site, from a three-toed horse about the size of a deer, suggesting horses were at the site but not in large numbers.

The pond also was home to turtles. “This is a unique turtle locality. We have found six or seven different types of turtles and a lot of them,” Wallace said. Among them are box turtles and common sliders related to today’s red-eared slider, which still lives in the area.

While the temperate forests of the continent were giving way to open grasslands to the west and conifer-dominated forests to the north, the Gray Fossil Site may have been a place of refuge amidst the change.

Unlike the LaBrea Tar Pits in Los Angeles, the Gray Pond was not a trap, which is why so few carnivore fossils are being found. An animal trapped in a tar pit struggles and cries out, attracting predators. The predators attack and become stuck themselves. At Gray Pond, life progressed naturally. Creatures lived; creatures died. And through attrition over perhaps less than 15,000 years — the time it took for the pond to silt in and cover up — remains were left behind to fossilize in perfect paleontological conditions.

Today, 12 years after it was discovered during road construction, the old pond is the site of the ETSU General Shale Brick Natural History Museum and Visitor Center at the Gray Fossil Site. While further digging and research are being done, visitors can tour the museum to learn more about this area and how it looked millions of years ago.

For more information, go to www.grayfossilmuseum.com.

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