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Paleontologists build ties between fossil site, China

Jennifer Sprouse • Sep 22, 2013 at 8:27 PM

While you wouldn’t normally associate East Tennessee with China, some East Tennessee State University paleontologists quickly made the important connection between related species of the two areas.

A release from the Natural History Museum said the Gray Fossil Site is around 4.5-7 million years old and represents the only site in eastern North America that preserves plants and animals from a forested environment during the late Miocene Epoch. Some of the species found at the site have now been linked to modern Asian species, including the red panda and the Eurasian badger.

Dr. Blaine Schubert, director of the Don Sundquist Center for Excellence in Paleontology and director of the East Tennessee State University and General Shale Natural History Museum; Dr. Jim Mead, chairman of the department of geosciences at ETSU and curator at the Natural History Museum; and Dr. Yusheng “Christopher” Liu, ETSU faculty member in the department of biological sciences, recently traveled to China for an international conference, “History of Life Evolution in Critical Geologic Periods: Sino-U.S. Critical Transitions Workshop.”

“We had the biggest representation of any institution,” Schubert said. “There were about 15 people from the U.S. and about 75 (people) … from China. We all gave talks on the Gray Fossil Site in connections between Asian sites and … how there are many many Asian connections that you find here.”

He said the conference, jointly funded by the National Science Foundation of China and the United States National Science Foundation, was held to develop collaborations between Chinese and American researchers and, in part, to exchange and educate each other on related fossil finds in their two countries.

A news release said Schubert and Mead were also invited to spend a week in Beijing studying fossils at the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology.

“One of the things I was doing there was … studying a saber-toothed cat. They invited me to come over and help one of their researchers study this and basically go through sort of a ‘how to’ and ‘how do you’ … study saber-toothed cats,” Schubert said.

“Even though I’m not the saber-toothed cat expert in the world, I know them and I’m happy to have a saber-toothed cat put in my lap and say ‘study this.’ It’s fun to get to go over and then sit down and say ‘Let’s look at all the literature, let’s look at all of the specimens. Let’s see what is known about them and how they fit in the fossil record and evolution.’ It’s been fascinating for me to take a little detour and look at the saber-toothed cats. It was just phenomenal,” he said.

Mead said the group’s curiosity about China’s connection to the area has opened up doors for the paleontologists, who each have an array of interests pertaining to their individual specialties.

“My main thing right now is looking at certain types of bovids, which would be like … cattle, sheep, bison, but then more interesting to me is looking at reptiles, looking at the snakes and the lizards and then looking at the salamanders,” he said. “I want to look at, specifically, some of the venomous snakes because there are just a ton of venomous snakes (in China) today. They have no record that they’ve studied at all.”

Schubert said millions of years ago there was a lot of interchange of animals along the Beringia.

According to the National Park Service website, the Beringia was the land between Russia and Alaska that was then exposed but is now under the Bering and Chukchi seas.

“If you go back 15 million years ago, you have alligators in Nebraska and Canada,” he said. “Eastern North America is most similar to east Asia because those are the remnants that are left. Those two places have sort of retained similar enough aspects that when you travel to both of them, they have a similar fauna and flora today.”

One of Schubert’s goal with working in China is to learn more about the bears that originated there.

“For me, all aspects of bears are exciting when you go to China, but one aspect is that short-faced bears show up in North America about 7 million years ago,” he said. “Where do they come from? Well, they come from an ancestor that comes from Asia. I want to look at those bears before they’re coming over to North America.”

With another trip to China planned for May, Schubert and Mead said they, along with Wallace, hope to take at least two graduate students with them.

“We’re all hoping to go visit some of these caves that are Ice Age in southern China and … I want to look at some of the fossil bears, some of the fossil cats from these Ice Age sites,” Schubert said.

Schubert and Mead said they also plan to further establish a student exchange program between paleontology students at ETSU and the Beijing institute, as well as continue hosting Chinese scientists, which began two years ago.

The China trip has also resulted in numerous manuscripts that are expected to be published over the next year, the release said.

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