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ETSU paleontologists find remains of giant short-faced bear in Saltville, Va.

Jennifer Sprouse • Jul 20, 2013 at 9:00 PM

Dating as far back as Thomas Jefferson’s State of Virginia Address in the late 1700s, Saltville, Va., has been known for its Ice Age fossil discoveries. For a group of East Tennessee State University paleontologists, the fossil finds in the area continue to be plentiful.

Dr. Blaine Schubert, director of the Don Sundquist Center for Excellence in Paleontology and director of the ETSU and General Shale Natural History Museum, said he began excavating and researching in Saltville in 2008, after the Gray Fossil Site and Saltville developed a curation agreement. The agreement allows the Fossil Site to excavate, transport, clean, catalog and preserve the fossils found in Saltville, as well as keep them in Gray, but says if Saltville ever had a full team and museum to take on and manage the fossils, they would be returned to the town.

Schubert said this past field season, which started in June, he and a group of around 20 people, including Dr. Jim Mead, Brian Compton and Sandra Swift, as well as graduate students from ETSU and other colleges, museum staff and volunteers, were able to successfully rediscover the location of a rock on the Saltville site from a picture taken back in 2000. Rediscovering the rock led them to the remains of a giant short-faced bear they had been trying to locate for approximately five years.

“There was an excavation that was done in 1999, where a canine of a giant short-faced bear was found and then in 2000, a jaw of a giant short-faced bear. These were not excavations by us, they were by another group and basically ... they knew they had a big bear, but nobody was working on bears. They didn’t know for sure what they had,” he said. “I later was shown this specimen and realized that it was one of these giant short-faced bears.”

Schubert said he took teams in 2008 and 2009 to excavate two areas, one of which was focused on a mammoth skeleton that had been scavenged and chewed on. He said it was predicted that the mammoth was chewed on by two large carnivores, one of those including a giant short-faced bear. He said the mammoth, which had allegedly died along a river turned lake in the area, had been chewed on long after he had already died.

In 2010, Schubert said they began to work on and research where the bear might be, but in 2012 a helpful discovery was made.

“In 2012, we did find the canine of the giant short-faced bear, and so we knew we were probably on the right track, but there was still this possibility that it could be a different short-faced bear,” he said. “We knew we’d found it, a bear, but we didn’t know for sure we were in the right area. One of the big goals of this year was actually taking this photograph that I had, an old photograph that was taken in the year 2000, that showed the bear jaw ... sitting next to a rock, that is a very distinct shape, down in the gravel.”

In June, Schubert said the university-led group returned to the site, which required one whole day of pumping water from the site.

“(In) Saltville, if you dig up a hole it fills up with water. The first whole day is just about pumping our pit back down again and then every day that we’re digging, we have to pump continuously to keep the water from coming back in on us,” he said. “It’s a nice way to protect our site and preserve it, because two days after we leave the site’s completely ... covered back over with water again.”

Schubert said this time they found the rock they had been searching for and he was able to match up the photographs and put the bear jaw back in place and then mapped it three dimensionally.

“We continued to dig and we found more of the bear. I’m not only finding teeth and claws, but we’re finding a lot of broken up bear bone as well,” he said. “I was jumping up and down with excitement. The crew didn’t quite understand when I was looking for it why it was so exciting for me, until after I found it and explained it. This had been a tremendous puzzle for us.”

Schubert said the group made the discovery in the latter part of the field season, so their focus will mainly be on the location of the bear next season.

He said he’s been gathering samples for radiocarbon dating to help them get a better feel for the age range of the fossils at the site.

“So far everything dates from about 11,000 years, which is the very end of the Ice Age, all the way back to about 40,000 (years old). We’re getting a big timespan and we’re seeing something really interesting geologically happening and that’s that transition ... from a river into a lake in the valley,” Schubert said. “Something caused it to dam up during the very late end of the Ice Age and if you could go back into that time, you would be looking at a ... swampy river area that turns into a lake and there would be spruce trees all over the place.

“What we find as we do more and more radiocarbon dates is that mammoths and mastodons were the last of the megafauna to actually go extinct, and giant short-faced bears were also one of the last ones to go extinct,” he said.

He said the Saltville area has ridges all along the valley, and the ridges have caves in them.

“What we want to do is start exploring and studying some of these cave sites because they will tell us another piece of the history,” Schubert said. “There’s so much yet to learn about the end of the Ice Age, and it’s a perfect site because there are so many fossils and it’s perfect for us because it’s an hour and a half away and it provides another opportunity for our students to learn about another kind of site, a totally different time frame with different kinds of animals than what we get here at the Gray site.”

According to an ETSU news release, the museum is preparing an exhibit on recent Saltville discoveries and more information on the exhibit will be provided as it becomes available.

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