Hunt Elephants and Rhinos in Eastern Tennessee, Nov. 5, 2012
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It is possible for properly motivated individuals to hunt for elephants, rhinos, saber-toothed tigers, ground sloths and many other species in Eastern Tennessee by participating in on-going excavations at the Gray Fossil Site, near Johnson City.
An unusually complete selection of eastern Miocene plants and animals are being excavated each day from the remains of a muddy pond that was formed when the roof of a cave collapsed and formed a 2-3 acre sinkhole. The existing oak-hickory forest was in an area with sufficient erosion to keep a flow of sediments washing into the sinkhole to rapidly cover animal remains. The result is that this deposit contains an unusually complete record of past life with many species resembling animals that still live.
The hour show features interviews with Blaine W. Shubert, PhD, Director of both the East Tennessee State University and General Shale Brick Natural History Museum (aka Gray Fossil Site and Museum) and the Center of Excellence in Paleontology and others who work at the site excavating and preserving these fossils.
Located at the town of Gray about 6-miles northwest of Johnson City, the Natural History Museum consist of public exhibits, workshops, offices as well as a number of temporary structures where dug materials are being processed. To date, about 2 percent of the site has been excavated, and some spectacular finds have been uncovered, including previously unknown species. So far as the completeness of the fossil record is concerned, this site is perhaps best compared to the LaBrea Tar Pits in California, although the Gray Site also preserves plant materials whereas, at LaBrea, the predominant remains are animal bones.
Tapirs, a hog-sized semi-aquatic animal that still lives in South America, and turtles are most numerous. Also present are relatives of present-day alligators, snakes and salamanders. Camels, horses, sloughs, and panda bears that are now only known as wild animals in Asia, are also uncovered, including a small bear, the red panda. Work at the Museum not only includes species found at this site but also at locations throughout the world to obtain a more complete understanding of the evolution of these animals.
Horizontal scale exaggerated 1.7X.
More than a year’s work has gone into rebuilding this rhino skull. The polymer and metal reinforcings are necessary to add strength to the large fossil so that it can be safely moved and stored.
Work at the site is time-consuming and labor intensive. Volunteers and interns from both academic and non-academic backgrounds do much of the tedious tasks of excavating the site, washing and sieving all the material, removing larger bones after installing a protective coating of plaster of Paris and burlap (“jackets” to protect the materials and help keep the blocks from drying) removing and preserving the fossil bones. Many of the fossils are fragmented and require reassembling as giant three-dimensional puzzles. It may take a year or more to reconstruct a single rhino skull and replace the missing pieces with sticky resins and aluminum mesh so that it may be safely handled and stored. Unlike some fossils that are replaced by silica and other minerals, these bones have undergone little mineral replacement and are relatively delicate; but not so fragile that they cannot be handled.
As interesting as the science may be, opportunities for paying work in Paleontology are few and primarily found at large institutions and with petroleum companies (interested mostly in micro-fauna recovered from drilled rock fragments). With its ongoing excavations, the Gray Fossil Site will continue to need interns and volunteers to work up the vast amount of material that will be removed. This is an ideal way to obtain hands-on experience in how to property excavate a site and preserve fossil, archeological or forensic remains.
For information about the museum and its activities go to their website www.etsu.edu/naturalhistorymuseum. If after reviewing the site, you would like additional information, you can correspond by calling (866) 202-6223 or writing to Dr. Schubert at 1212 Suncrest Dr., Gray, Tennessee, 37615.
If you have the passion, the patience and are willing to spend a month or more delicately uncovering a single fossil bone from a 12X18-inch block of smelly clay with the hope of finding some previously unknown animal or plant, work at the Gray Fossil Site is an opportunity to do exactly that. At the least, you can discover if this type of hunting is for you.