Our most recent episode talks about one of our favorite dig sites, the Gray Fossil Site. Not only is this site where the two of us got a lot of our hands on experience with paleontology, but it is also a fascinating fossil deposit.
In the News:
Outrunning T. rex
Recent research examining the strength of T. rex bones shows that the large predator was slower than some previous estimates. [Report]
Warm-blooded Mammal Ancestors
Isotope analyses of early mammal ancestors shows that they developed endothermic temperature regulation before the Permian mass extinction. [Report]
The large sails found on the back of the hadrosaur Ouranosaurus developed as the dinosaurs matured, and therefore may have served a purpose in mating rituals. [Report]
Human Arrival in Australia
Artifacts found in Australia’s Northern Territory might show that humans first arrived on the continent earlier than we thought. [Report]
History of the Site
The Gray Fossil Site and Natural History Museum is a small museum located in the city of Gray in East Tennessee, and built upon a significant fossil deposit unlike many others.
This site was discovered in 2000 while a road crew was digging through a hillside to extend a road. They soon noticed the bones preserved in the clay of the hill and road work was halted so the road could be redirected.
A few years later a museum was built on the site. Since then the site has been managed by the Geosciences Department of East Tennessee State University (ETSU). The professors, students, staff, and volunteers continue to excavate the fossils there, which are then preserved and stored in the museum’s on site lab and collections.
Both of us actually worked at the museum as educators while we were at ETSU. This was our first joint foray into paleo-education!
Prehistory of the Site
This fossil deposit was created by a limestone sink hole that formed a pond in a forested area between 4.7 and 7 million years ago, placing it at the boundary of the Miocene and Pliocene Epochs. This created a watering hole for all kinds of animals in the area at that time.
The sinkhole is fairly large, covering about 4 acres on the surface and over a 100 feet deep at the lowest points. This would have been a very calm body of water whose depths provided the perfect environment for fossilization.
This habitat was very rich and sported many species of animals and plants that have been preserved in the clay, including many species one would expect to find in a pond in Tennessee, such as turtles, birds, snakes, and fish. But other residence are not as familiar. Among these are alligators, rhinos, mastodons, and saber-toothed cats.
The site also has had multiple new species identified there. Due to this being one of the few fossil deposits from this time period on the East Coast, many of these animals are being discovered for the first time. The most famous is the new species of fossil red panda, which today are only found in Asia.
There is still much to learn from this site as only about 1% of the total clay deposit has been excavated since digging started in 2000. As the guests on our tours always liked to say, “Hey, at least you have job security.”