There are tapirs afoot

Gray Travel Blog

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current dig site

We finished work early and went to check out the new Gray Fossil Site and Museum in a nearby town.   For a small fee we got a guided tour of the fossil dig site, laboratory and specimens and a nice hands-on exhibit.  The fossil site was discovered in 2000, during TDOT highway construction activities.  As they were stripping a hillside, they started finding small bones.  Soon they hit a large elephant hip bone and construction stopped while scientists flocked to the site.  It was determined to be a very rich deposit of Miocene fossils and the governer decided it was valuable enough that the construction project was re-located. 

About 4.

close up of current dig site
5-7 million years ago, this particular spot was a popular watering hole that formed in a collapsed cavern called a sinkhole.  Animals that are preserved here likely fell in or got stuck in the mud and their bodies became preserved in the clayey soil.  Originally thought to be an ice age site, the discovery of an alligator skull suggested a much warmer climate!  Other animals, such as tapirs, sloths, and rhinos confirm this, as there are currently none of these animals living in Tennessee as their natural habitat.  Two new species were discovered here - a red panda and a vegetarian badger.   Several other types of fossils have been found, many from extinct species such as the saber toothed cat and this particular red panda.  

The site covers about 5 acres and the deposit is about 100 ft thick.

another dig site
  It is estimated that it will take 100 years to completely dig this site!  Remember, digging is slow going because they don't want to break or overlook any fossils.  Most of the digging is done by ETSU students.  In fact, ETSU did not have a paleontology department prior to this discovery.  Adults can spend a day digging in summer, limited dates only, and I definitely want to look into this next time I'm here.  They say that for every 1 hour spent in the field, 20 hours is spent in the lab!  They dig out the large stuff slowly, but then they put the dug soil in yellow bags to be sifted through later.  The material passes through a couple different sized screens and any bone fragment or plant particle is pulled out and pieced back together.
using a polymer to replace missing pieces
  I'm a geologist and it still amazes me how paleontologists and know so much about an extinct animal based on their teeth!  And then put together bone fragments into a completed skeleton.  They had a rhino foot puzzle to put together and I couldn't get any of the pieces to fit!  The scientist here developed a new polymer called butvar that is used to fill in the missing pieces in skeletons.  The current method is to create the missing pieces using a type of clay that is not removable.  This new material can dissolve and will likely start replacing the older method.  In fact, this discovery is so new that many paleontogists don't even know about it yet!  Cool!

The museum itself was very interesting and interactive.

the beginning of exhibit hall
  It starts with a 5 minute video and then you walk back into time.  Displays include the skeletons of animals found there as well as individual bones from several species.  Many of the smaller bones have a magnifyer over it so you can see them better.  There are numerous drawers  with a question on the outside and the answer on the inside (this is fun for adults, too!).    After the fossils, you see a little bit on early humans and how the current scientists dig up the fossils.  There is a sort-of sandbox with fake bones covered with bits of rubber and you can "dig" them out and identify what you've "discovered".  I thought it was pretty creative and fun for kids (and adults too!).  After you've "dug" out your fossils you go to the "laboratory" to document your find.
try to put this rhino foot bone puzzle together
  They have examples of field books with notes written so kids can learn how scientists take notes and record their finds.  There are some displays on how casts of bones are created and some fun puzzles.  I already mentioned the impossible rhino foot puzzle but there is also an easier leg bone puzzle.   After the lab you pass a few display cases that show an alligator, turtle shells, and some teeth.  It is a pretty small museum, but it is new and very interactive and worth the few dollar entry fee. 

The gift shop is small with lots of books and stuffed animals.  In fact, I'm not sure where else you would even find a tapir or red panda stuffed animal! 

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current dig site
current dig site
close up of current dig site
close up of current dig site
another dig site
another dig site
using a polymer to replace missing…
using a polymer to replace missin…
the beginning of exhibit hall
the beginning of exhibit hall
try to put this rhino foot bone pu…
try to put this rhino foot bone p…
wash station
wash station
red panda skeleton *new species*
red panda skeleton *new species*
part of the lab
part of the lab
specimen displays upstairs
specimen displays upstairs
watching short video
watching short video
fun drawers to pull out
fun drawers to pull out
listening to the local weather and…
listening to the local weather an…
what could it be?
what could it be?
me uncovering a fossil
me "uncovering" a fossil
tools of the trade
tools of the trade
field is more fun
field is more fun
alligator skeleton
alligator skeleton
rhino skull
rhino skull
turtle shells
turtle shells
teeth and bones
teeth and bones
fountain outside
fountain outside
Natural History Museum (full long …
Natural History Museum (full long…
Hmmm...  They have a viewing galle…
Hmmm... They have a viewing gall…
Gray Sights & Attractions review
great hands-on museum with a chance to dig for fossils!
The Gray Fossil Site was discovered in 2000 during highway constructions activities. A large bone, an elephant hip, was discovered and brought all co… read entire review
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photo by: alyssa_ob