Paleontologist Dr. Steven Wallace, holding a baby tapir fossil, discussed the fossil finds this year at the Gray Fossil Site. (Ron Campbell/Johnson City Press)
Loaded with little teases.
That’s how Dr. Steven Wallace describes the Gray Fossil Site in the wake of a year filled with significant discoveries.
“We have dug probably less than 2 percent of the entire site,” he said. “When you think of how big the site is, and how deep the site is, and all of these little pits that we’ve dug here and there ... we’ve dug so little, yet we’ve found so many cool things.”
Finds from the 2013 field season easily make the cut for the “cool” category, as paleontologists discovered new specimens and added them to the existing collections found in earlier digs.
Among them was a new, larger red panda specimen, a significant find given that the original discovery of a new red panda species in Gray has been one of the site’s claims to fame.
“It’s a fairly complete skeleton that’s really only missing part of one hind leg and part of the tail. It has a beautiful skull with all of the teeth,” said Wallace, museum curator and site director. “It’s significantly larger than the first (red panda) skeleton. This guy is probably three times the size of a living red panda. When I compare the limb elements, this thing is as big as a wolverine.”
The Gray Site has become one of the best places for unearthing fossil red panda fossils, especially given that full specimens had been unheard of in this part of the world.
“I didn’t expect to keep finding more, let alone skeletons,” Wallace said. “For me, I think that’s what’s been neat because there’s only one other site in North America that had red panda and it’s in Washington state. They have a single tooth and they’ve never found anything else.”
Some more unlikely finds from this dig season include horse and camel fossils.
“Like a lot of animals at the end of the Ice Age, a lot of things went extinct in North America and camels had big extinctions. (Certain species of) horses, of course, went extinct at the end of the Ice Age,” Wallace said. “When most people think of the horses, they think the Spanish brought them to America. That’s not really true. Ninety-nine percent of horse evolution took place in North America, and then they spread out in the Old World and they went extinct here.”
He said finding any horse material around or in the site is rare, but this year researchers found another horse tooth, which he believes came from the same horse that had the first tooth found at the site.
A camel hoof core was also located in spoil piles. Wallace said there are traces of both Old World and newer camels at the site. The newer camels are much smaller than the older species, which look more like a llama or an alpaca.
Another big find during the 2013 season was a nearly complete alligator skeleton.
Size-wise, the alligator is very closely related to the living alligator, but it’s probably a different species, Wallace said.
“This was probably about a … 6- or 7-foot (alligator),” he said. “Most of our alligators at the site are a little bit smaller. We don’t know yet whether that is real or just a bias from the sample we have. All that we can say is that most of what we have found so far have been pretty small.”
Numerous isolated bones were found near the primary alligator skeleton that also suggest a second alligator fossil is present somewhere on the site.
Wallace said a second type of beaver was also uncovered this year.
“We do have beavers at the site, and for a long time we only had one kind. It was about the size of a muskrat,” he said. “This last summer out on the spoil piles, which were from the original construction of the museum itself, one of our workers actually found a foot bone that’s basically a modern-sized beaver.
“It looks like we have two different species of beaver at this site. My guess is the one that’s the size of the modern beaver was probably living a lot like a modern beaver, but the smaller one probably was filling the modern role of a muskrat or something along those lines.”
Wallace said one summer camper also ran across a peccary tusk in another portion of the spoil piles. Today’s peccary, America’s version of a pig, is said to be much smaller than those found in Gray and he said so far they’ve found three different kinds of the animal.
Another of the Gray site’s hallmarks since its discovery by a road crew in 2000 has been the numerous specimens of an extinct dwarf species of tapir, a snouted animal shaped similar to pigs and related to horses and rhinoceroses. Species of tapir still live in forested and jungle regions of South America, Central America and Southeast Asia.
“One of the neat things that we were actually fortunate enough to get this year was a variety of three-dimensional tapir skulls,” Wallace said. “Because it’s clay out there that the fossils are preserved in, it compresses and because there was a lot of material on top of it at one time the whole site’s been squished a little bit.
“Most of our skulls are pancakes. We find a turtle, we find anything, it’s usually a pancake and it takes forever to put back together. Occasionally, we get three-dimensional fossils, but until recently we didn’t have very many tapir skulls, or at least very many nice ones. We were excited to get it and what’s cool is that we have several different ages.”
He said the sampling of ages of the tapir fossils found on the site shows that the tapirs were just doing day-to-day activities around a pond or some sort of watering hole and weren’t trapped on the site.
“This is one of our sort of ... claims to fame because not only is it a lot of individuals, but every age you can think of,” Wallace said. “Everything from fetal material inside of females, all the way up to geriatric, old individuals, so it’s not just a snapshot of a certain age class. It’s every age possible.”
For more information on the East Tennessee State University Natural History Museum and Gray Fossil Site, call 866-202-6223 or visit www.etsu.edu/naturalhistorymuseum.