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Gray Fossil Site's Ice Age expert to appear on BBC documentary

Rex Barber • Jun 10, 2012 at 5:43 AM

A BBC documentary on the Ice Age is being filmed this weekend in Saltville, Va., and will feature an expert on the topic from East Tennessee State University.

Blaine Schubert, director of the Don Sundquist Center of Excellence in Paleontology at ETSU and faculty member in the department of geosciences, will provide information on the Ice Age to BBC. Schubert is currently heading a dig at the Ice Age fossil site in Saltville.

“It’s one of my areas of specialty and, you know, the site here at Saltville is one of the later Ice Age sites. It dates to between about 30,000 and 10,000 years old,” Schubert said.

The BBC crew is visiting sites across Europe and North America. In the United States, the program will air on the Discovery Channel on a future date.

Schubert, who also specializes in giant short-faced bears, has been excavating at Saltville since 2008. He is currently in the middle of a three week excavation at the site.

“And they (BBC) just basically learned about what I’m doing on this site through the Internet and contacted me,” Schubert said.

Schubert will be featured in two of the three episodes for this documentary, he said.

“The Ice Age is the time frame when we had all these giant animals, mammoths, mastodons, giant ground sloths here in North America, giant short-faced bears,” he said.

Fossils from these animals are all found in Saltville.

Schubert has been working in two areas at Saltville. One area contains a mammoth that died in an old lake deposit. This creature was heavily chewed on and scavenged on by other giant carnivores, probably giant short-faced bears.

“So that material is pretty interesting because here you have a giant animal, you know, as big as a or bigger than a modern elephant that died in this lake and you’ve got something like a bear going out to actually try and get parts of it and biting through the bone.”

A short distance from that site is another one interesting to Schubert because it could yield short-faced bear remains. This creature was first discovered at Saltville about 10 years ago and Schubert continues to try to find more. So far, no more short-faced bear has been found but there has been mastodon and caribou discovered.

This is Schubert’s fourth trip to the site. He has been every year since 2008 except last year. Graduate students, undergrads, volunteers and staff from the Gray Fossil Site museum go on these trips.

Saltville is about an hour and a half north from Johnson City. ETSU operates the General Shale Brick Natural History Museum and Gray Fossil Site, where Schubert is also the director. The fossils at Gray are millions of years old, so having students learn from both sites is valuable, Schubert said.

“The reason I keep digging here, besides the fact that it’s an exciting Ice Age site, is because we have the paleontology program with these students and we want to expose them to as many different sites and opportunities as we can,” Schubert said.

Schubert has been interviewed by the History Channel several times. Jim Mead, chairman of ETSU’s department of geosciences, was recently interviewed by the BBC regarding caves in the Grand Canyon.

“It definitely speaks to the program that we have developed at East Tennessee State University,” Schubert said of the BBC’s selecting ETSU experts for information. “And while they are doing a number of differ people, it’s not that many, so it’s just a select few people who are getting on this special. It’ll be good exposure for ETSU.”

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