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Visitors to Gray Fossil Site event learn how fossils relate to conservation, environment

Jennifer Sprouse • Apr 20, 2013 at 8:41 PM

Fossils and Earth Day are not usually categorized together, but visitors at the East Tennessee State University and General Shale Brick Natural History Museum Visitor Center at the Gray Fossil Site on Saturday had plenty of activities and discussions to learn about the pair’s similarities.

Doors opened at the fossil site at 9 a.m., and throughout the afternoon a steady stream of people filtered in and out of the museum’s rooms and Earth Day activities.

“We’re trying to sort of educate people in how does paleontology relate to protecting the environment or conservation,” said Steven Wallace, museum curator and site manager for the Gray Fossil Site. “Understanding how animals have reacted to past changes is going to help us figure out how they’re going to react to current changes. That’s part of ... how we justify what we do.”

Booths were set up around the museum, manned by graduate students teaching on a variety of topics, such as the environment, ecology and climate change.

The museum’s youngest visitors could make and paint a fossil cast, as well as wander through the fossil prep lab and collections facility on a tour conducted by a site researcher.

Erick Hendrick, along with his children, Cadence and Colton, were hanging out on the second floor of the museum, examining the different tables and booths dealing with Earth Day.

“We were just looking for something to do today. We live in Knoxville and I was up in Johnson City on business the other day and noticed the sign,” Hendrick said. “(I) just kind of looked online and noticed they had the Earth Day activities and stuff, so we made the trip up this morning.”

He said they had just been walking around looking at everything in the museum, but said the “Hatching the Past: Dinosaur Eggs and Babies” exhibit was fun for his kids.

“They really liked that,” Hendrick said. “I really like how everything is really interactive. They’ve got the little displays where they can brush away the debris and find the bones.”

And instead of just staying indoors, visitors could walk outside and be guided up to the fossil excavation area, which Wallace said was the kickoff to the site’s field season.

“What they’re doing right now is they’re sort of reopening the pit that they were working on last year,” he said. “The way it works is when you shut down in the fall, the surface clay tends to kind of dry out and get sort of hard and so you have to ... break back into it again.

“As they do that they’re going to encounter fossils, they’re going to run into things, but in a sense they’re preparing it so when the main crew comes out we can just take off.”

Wallace said the main crew, a mix of paleontologists and graduate students, will begin working at the site shortly after classes end for the summer at ETSU and they will have approximately six to 12 people actively excavating.

Other Earth Day activities included a lunchtime discussion titled “Climate Change, Evolution and Extinction,” which focused on a variety of topics, such as how paleontology relates to Earth Day, how climate change impacts plants and animals through time, whether climate change causes extinctions and how climate change impacts the evolution of environments and organisms.

Dr. Mick Whitelaw, curator of geology, presented on geology and climate change, as well as helped visitors identify fossils.

Dr. Jay Franklin also gave a talk on archaeological sites in the region, what kind of sites people find and the conservation of the sites.

The celebration was also part of a fundraiser for the museum’s education and development programs.

For more information on the museum and site, visit www.etsu.edu/naturalhistorymuseum/.

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