ETSU 'Paleo Talks' begins with early mastodons

Tanner Cook • Updated Apr 10, 2020 at 7:44 PM

The Gray Fossil Site was established nearly 20 years ago and still holds many mysteries dating back almost 5 million years. 

One of those mysteries that is still being unearthed is that of a mastodon that predates many similar animals by millions of years. 

On Friday, the East Tennessee State paleontology department began hosting a virtual “Paleo Talk” on Friday afternoons via Zoom that is open to the public. About 60 people tuned into the lecture, which featured ETSU paleontologist and the head curator at the GFS, Chris Wigda. 

The virtual event was hosted by fellow ETSU paleontologists Blaine Schubert and David Moscato. 

The first talk related to “Early Mastodons of North America.” 

Wigda recounted when Schubert first emailed him with photos of mastodon teeth from the GFS years ago and asked, “Is this what I think it is?” 

Wigda quickly responded with a resounding yes that it was the teeth of a mastodon that had been discovered in Gray. The curious part was that the mastodons that Wigda were used to dealing with were around 13,000 years old. The GFS dates back almost 5 million years, and Wigda was immediately intrigued. 

“When the full mandible was unearthed and there were tusks growing out of the chin, I recalled a particular mastodon skull in Oregon that looked very similar,” Wigda said. “It was very different and it looked like something that might have been pre-Ice Age.”

The skull in Gray is quite similar to the “miomastodon” in Oregon, and there are only a few dozen of digging sites relating to miomastodons across the entire United States. 

“What’s kind of interesting is that the teeth really haven’t changed that much over 5 million years,” Wigda said. “The Gray mastodon really breaks the mold in terms of what we thought about dating when these animals were alive.”

The GFS currently has records on five or six different mastodons with one main skeleton still being excavated. 

The “Paleo Talk” with Dr. Wigda will be posted to the social media pages of the ETSU Paleontology Department and the GFS. It will also be uploaded to the group’s YouTube channel. 

Next week’s “Paleo Talk” is with Joshua Samuels, and his talk will be on small mammalian makeup at the Gray Fossil Site. Details on upcoming “Paleo Talks” topics will be available on the site’s Facebook page at www.facebook.com/grayfossilsite.

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