Even in years when there are no major discoveries at the Gray Fossil Site that merit journal articles, there is still plenty of material unearthed.
“We opened up a series of new test pits this year and most of them were not very productive,” said Steven Wallace, a paleontologist at East Tennessee State University who works at the Gray Fossil Site. “We did find stuff, don’t get me wrong. It’s sort of entertaining that a slow year for us we still usually find several tapirs; we ended up with a couple of nice tapir skulls. So, I mean, it’s still a good year technically, but nothing really new or earth-shattering this year.”
The other part of a what is believed to be a camel bone discovered in 2010 also was found this year, but not enough to make a full identification.
Also found was some isolated red panda and badger material.
Wallace, said there are about 90 individual tapir specimens that have been pulled from the earth at Gray and identified. Many more tapir bones have been uncovered.
This summer, the first test pit on the newly acquired Fulkerson property that sat adjacent to the site prior to the state purchasing it for the fossil site was opened in spoil material dumped there by the Tennessee Department of Transportation when a road was being cut through the area in 2000. Not much was there, though a few alligator bones were found.
In 2000, TDOT workers noticed they were unearthing fossils and eventually the project was stopped. ETSU was given the site and has since developed a respectable paleontology program and a museum at the site.
This was the second year of a three-year $324,000 National Science Foundation grant sponsoring digging at the site.
Wallace said it was great to find all the new material, even if it is more of the same, like the tapir skulls. In fact, he knows other dig sites where researchers would be thrilled to find a single skull in a digging season.
“It still really adds to our database and adds to our knowledge,” Wallace said. “There’s really no such thing as too many tapirs.”
But Wallace keeps waiting for the saber-toothed cat and the shovel tusk elephant, both of which are thought to be there.
Wallace also hopes to find the skull or jaw of a bone-crunching dog that he thinks is somewhere at Gray, because of a humerus (upper arm bone) already discovered that likely belongs to that creature.
“It’s something that I had assumed we would find, but this is just sort of a teaser,” Wallace said of the humerus. “It tells us that it’s here but, boy, I can’t wait until we find a skull or a jaw or something like that.”
Skulls and jaws are good specimens to identify species.
Of, course there is no rush, because the school owns the property.
Wallace said the school’s desire is to sample the whole site and see what the fossil distribution is. He said there can be a fossil-rich area in one particular spot, but a few meters over it is barren of fossils. That happened in summer 2010 when one pit yielded about 25 turtle fossils, and a pit next to it had very little.
The nearly 15-acre Fulkerson property, acquired earlier this year, means the site should provide opportunities for paleontologists for years to come.
“It was really nice to actually get that property,” Wallace said. “It gives us a more of a buffer between the surrounding properties. And it gave us another section of the deposit itself.”
To really get down to the fossil bed would mean removing a large section of the top layer of soil. That is basically what TDOT did 11 years ago while cutting the road.
“We’ll probably dig there for a couple of years just to explore the soil,” Wallace said. “And then at some point we may try to dig down to the deposit itself.”
Wallace said it is good for a fossil site to have unexplored land.
“It’s sort of something you can sit on for future generations,” he said. “It’s always nice if you have the ability when a fossil site is big enough to leave some for future generations, because you never know what new technology is going to pop up next year or 10 years from now or 100 years from now.”
The fossil site and museum is located 1.8 miles from Exit 13 off Interstate 26 in Gray and is open daily from 8:30 a.m. until 5 p.m. Visit www.grayfossilmuseum.com or call the museum toll free at 866-202-6223.