Editorial Roundup: Tennessee

Kingsport Times News. May 20, 2023.

Editorial: Region fortunate to have Gray fossil site

Since a highway realignment project on State Route 75 in Washington County revealed black and gray layered clays 23 years ago, Northeast Tennessee has been making paleontological history.

Finding something new in the fossil record of the planet’s early life is not something that would have been expected in this region primarily because of the Appalachian Mountains. Formed during the Ordovician Period, some 480 million years ago, the Appalachians at their height were about the scale of the Andes.

But nearly five million years ago a pond formed within a sinkhole surrounded by a warm, wet forest, and a variety of now extinct species of more recent origin went there to drink, fell in, and were added to the incredible record of life preserved at the Gray Fossil Site. It was discovered during road construction and preserved for research and education.

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The site became part of East Tennessee State University, and the Gray Fossil Site & Museum was opened in 2007. The site is called “Lagerstatte,” a sedimentary deposit that exhibits extraordinary fossils with exceptional preservation, sometimes including preserved soft tissues. And it has yielded a variety of new species previously unknown to science.

One of the most exciting finds was the tooth of a red panda, found in 2002, a new species named Bristol’s panda. Then came a new species of painted turtle unique to the Gray Fossil Site and named Chrysemys corniculata, or the “horned painted turtle.” The name comes from a conspicuous pair of pointy projections on the front edge of the shell.

Remains of a rhinoceros named Teleoceras aepysoma were found. They were among the very last rhinos in North America. Even a new species of Hickory tree was discovered at Gray.

Now comes the latest discovery, a study of the fossil moles at the site. By comparing fossil bones and teeth with other living and extinct mole species, the researchers identified four different types of extinct moles, including two species that are entirely new. Danielle Oberg, a doctoral student at the University of Arkansas and alumnus of East Tennessee State University’s paleontology graduate program, and Dr. Joshua Samuels, associate professor in the ETSU Department of Geosciences and curator at the site, conducted the research.

“Mole species are usually tied to environmental conditions and soil types,” said Oberg. “This many species at one site is quite special.”

Moles are excellent diggers and voracious predators, contributing to their ecosystems by aerating the soil and feeding on tiny animals, the researchers noted. The moles identified in this study represent a variety of lifestyles from digging to swimming, revealing a unique and diverse ancient community.

The two new species identified in this study are Parascalops grayensis, a relative of the hairy-tailed moles that still dig through the soil of East Tennessee today, and Magnatalpa fumamons, a relative of modern-day desmans, aquatic predators found now only in Europe and Asia.

This is the oldest known record of hairy-tailed moles in the world and the first known record of desmans in eastern North America.

The region is fortunate to have this unique scientific resource and museum, the only fossil site in the Appalachian region dating near the boundary between the Miocene and Pliocene Epochs. If you haven’t been to the museum of late, stop by and see the latest exhibits. You’ll find more information at etmnh.org.

Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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