Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Discovering The Red Panda

As we turned the corner to enter the permanent display room of the Gray Fossil Site and Museum, we were greeted with the scene below:

WOW! What a powerful presentation of the saber-toothed cat. The lighting, the terrain, and the positioning of the skeleton gave us the impression of a living animal in its native environment. Whether I focused on the teeth of the cat or the size of its paws, I saw a truly menacing animal.

Near the cat was the skeleton of the tapir. This animal is related to horses and rhinos.

The rhino (left) is one of five that have been found at the Site. If the only finds were the skeletons of these three species, the Site and Museum would be worth a visit to see some animals that roamed the area during the Pleistocene Age, some 15,000 to 30,000 years ago.

But it is the skeleton of the alligator (left) that threw this assessment off by five million years. This meant that this skeleton was from the Miocene Age (5-7.5 million years ago). With this discovery, the Gray Fossil Site caught the attention of paleontologists around the world.

The Fossil Site is under the direction of the faculty in the Geology Department at East Tennessee State University in nearby Johnson City. With these discoveries, the size of the faculty increased significantly (from a total of one), and the department now has 20 graduate students in its masters' degree program. In addition, funding for the construction of the Museum was obtained, and therein lies an additional find of monumental importance.

Some background information: In May of 2000, highway construction was halted on what was to become the Gray Fossil Site when the crew noticed some black dirt that was very wet. The photo below shows how far down the grading had progressed from the top of the hill in the right of the photo. They soon found a rhino head in that black ooze, and construction was halted permanently.

In the course of constructing the Museum, large earth-moving equipment was brought in to make fast work of digging the foundation. In the photo below, you will see some piles of gray dirt. This dirt came from the digging of the foundation.

Just about exactly one year ago, one of the geologists started to sift through one of the piles. What he found was 60% of a skeleton of a new species, the red panda. The official unveiling of the skeleton of the red panda will be this Friday. It's on our calendar.

Our tour guide, Scott Evans, noted that two new species have been discovered here already and hinted that another two or three new species may be added to that list very soon. Discovering one new species is a paleontologist's dream, so you can imagine the excitement around this site.

Even to us as visitors, this seemed like pretty exciting stuff.

The tour took us past the lab. In this first photo, there is a large clump of bones (labeled "Rhino skull") that has been carried into the lab in a plaster basket.

The two people in this photo are volunteers who will spend many hours identifying and cleaning bones, fossils, pieces of wood, and other items. The is an extensive period of training to earn one of these highly-valued volunteer positions.

Estimates are that on this simple five-acre site, there is enough work for volunteers and faculty members to extend into the next century.

But, we left thinking what treasures may have been carted away in the early highway construction (no one knows where the dirt was taken) and what might be located under the Eastern Tennessee State University and General Shale Brick Natural History Museum, Gray Fossil Site, in Gray, Tennessee.

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