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Gray Fossil Site's dig season yields significant finds for ETSU students

Lizards, snakes, sloths, rhinos and peccaries have highlighted the 2014 dig season at the East Tennessee State University and General Shale Natural History Museum and Visitor Center at the Gray Fossil Site.

Throughout the spring, summer and early fall, paleontologists, students and volunteers added significantly to the collection of fossils from previous dig seasons and also used new methods to dig out small, fragile fossil material.

“This dig season was unique because we organized Saturday Dig Days for the public,” said Dr. Steven Wallace, museum curator, site manager and professor of Geosciences.  “Dig Day participants helped find several fossils that really enhance our collection, such as pieces of peccary tusk that helped us complete a specimen found last year.”

“Visitors on our Dig Days also found two pieces of tooth that ended up going together to form a partial canine,” said Dr. Blaine Schubert, museum director, curator and associate professor of Geosciences.  “I was able to identify it as an upper left canine of our short-faced bear.  Bear teeth have been rare finds for us at Gray, so any additional material is helpful for our research and understanding of this mysterious new species.” 

Paleontologists also found additional peccary material, including a tusk and three teeth belonging to a single individual, as well as other isolated elements.  Volunteers uncovered a sloth caudal (tail) vertebra, which was from a ground sloth.  Fourteen years of excavations at the site have only produced isolated elements from giant sloths, so even a single bone is significant.

One of the highlights of the 2014 dig season was the discovery of an eggshell.  Josh Doby, a graduate student in ETSU’s paleontology program in the Department of Geosciences, found the first fossil eggshell recovered from the Gray Fossil Site while doing microscopic excavations in the prep lab.  The specimen, consisting of numerous fragments that would probably account for half of the eggshell, is still being processed by museum preparator Shawn Haugrud, and will likely be on display in the near future.

In addition to the eggshell, Doby’s efforts with Haugrud resulted in additional lizard specimens which will help ETSU paleontologists identify the type of legless lizard from the site. After careful collection and fine screening, over 200 osteoderms, which are diagnostic bones in the skin, and several vertebrae were recovered. A typical field season yields only a few isolated lizard osteoderms, so this find was very exciting.

The ETSU and General Shale Natural History Museum and Gray Fossil Site continually showcase the 5-million-year-old Gray Fossil Site and its unique ecosystem.  New exhibits representing recent finds are added periodically throughout the year.  Currently, rhino and turtle display cases are on display.    

There are also special events held at the Museum, such as the monthly “Lunchtime Lecture Series,”  “Fossil and Artifact ID Nights” every other month, and numerous ongoing youth programs.

The museum is open Tuesday through Saturday from 9 a.m.-5 p.m. and is located 1.8 miles off Exit 13 on Interstate 26.  For more information, call (866) 202-6223 or visit the museum at www.etsu.edu/naturalhistorymuseum.   For disability accommodations, call the ETSU Office of Disability Services at (423) 439-8346.