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By MARINA WATERS

Staff Writer

mwaters@heraldandtribune.com

There’s a high school, a Dairy Queen, and a softball complex just a few miles off the main road that runs through Gray, Tennessee. But most don’t realize this tiny town is also home to the remains of prehistoric rhinos, alligators and elephant-like animals ready to be uncovered and restored at the Gray Fossil Site and Museum.

“One of the things about this place that people don’t realize is that this is a world-class fossil site. It’s a treasure for the entire world and it’s incredibly rare having a fossil locality like this where you have such a diverse deposit of organisms,” paleontologist and Director of GFSM and the East Tennessee State University Center of Excellence in Paleontology, Blaine Schubert said. “And they represent a time that we don’t have represented anywhere else in the entire Appalachian region. So what that means is that most of the plants and animals that we find are things that we’ve never found before. They’re completely new to science or they’re a long ways away from we knew they were before. So a lot of new animals get discovered.”

And now the Hand-On! Regional Museum that has been stationed in downtown Johnson City for over 30 years is headed to it’s new home at the GFSM. Here ETSU will team up with Hands-on! as a rare team of museum coordinators and paleontologists.

“The Hands-On! was really looking to grow substantially and move into a newer facility where they could grow,” Schubert said. “We were really wanting to do a lot more in public education but also in research. Once we realized there was the possibility for us to partnership where they (Hands-On!) would handle more of the day-to-day public aspect and where we could help them and oversee the science that was going out about the fossil site, it became really this synergy and excitement of basically doubling our whole program.”

For Hands-On!, a location change (which should be complete by 2018) will bring differences in the look of the museum, but Hands- On! executive director Andy Marquart is also looking to keep the heart of the regional museum right where it always has been.

“Our mission won’t change. Our goal is to be an extension of the classroom, to provide a safe place for families to come and create memories and learn together,” Marquart said, “We’re really looking at the space as an empty canvas for experiences we can have over time and really adjust on a day-to-day basis. And I think that’s what people will notice the most.”

Apart from a new location, the staff at Hands-On! will also work next door to the 5-million-year-old fossil site behind the building. The site has provided the museum with complete fossils of numerous animals like the red panda (that has been found in only one other place in North America), a venomous lizard, tapirs and short-faced bears.

 

Before the fossils are on display, they are studied, cleaned, and assembled in the lab at the site.

Before the fossils are on display, they are studied, cleaned and assembled in the lab at the site.

It’s served as the centerpiece of ETSU’s role with the site.

“Our goal to the general public is to teach them more about their natural heritage and more about how things have changed here overtime and get them interested in this sort of bigger picture of the world through time,” Schubert said. “It becomes pretty amazing to people when they realize that there used to be rhinos here. And there used to be red pandas and alligators. So it’s that concept that sometimes is really hard for some people to even believe.

“But when you’re at a place where you can show them as you’re pulling it out of the ground and putting it back together again that it is genuine and that it’s right there. It’s gets people a lot more interested in science and in discovery. And a lot of places don’t have the kind of opportunity that we have to show that hands-on approach, that right-out-of-the-ground science in action that we can do.”

Out of that ground also came a discovery that will take up much of these paleontologists’ time (and laboratory room) for the next few years; ETSU and General Shale Brick Natural History Museum registrar April Nye told the Herald & Tribune that remains from an elephant-like mammal with long tusks known as a mastodon were discovered in 2015. Though parts of the mastodon are yet to be pieced together, the lab holds a large mastodon skull incased in an enormous cast, a lengthy radius ulna bone and a few sections of the mammal’s tucks which are on display for visitors through the windows at one end of the lab.

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A mastodon tusk can be spotted through the window of the lab where the paleontologists work on their findings.

“This one was also a surprise. We didn’t know what kind of elephant-like animal we had,” Schubert said. “There were a couple of different possibilities. And it turns out that what we have is one of the earliest and most complete mastodons in North America. But as people come out and see us excavating this summer and next summer, that’s one of the primary things we’ll be working on is this enormous mastodon. One of our new paleontologists that works on these kinds of animals has estimated that the weight of it was around 16 tons. So that’s one of the newer highlights.”

Prehistoric heavyweights aren’t the only fossils taking residency in the lab at the museum; Paleontologist Joshua Samuels—while examining a chipmunk footbone—explained the importance of also studying small rodent-type fossils which have also been found at the site.

“Some of these really small things, the useful thing about them is that they will tell you a lot about the environment but also, they’re really useful in helping to tell time,” Samuels explained. “A lot of them, they’re short-lived. They tend not to be very geographically widespread. Something like a mastodon, they live everywhere. They can walk from one place to another real easily, but something like a chipmunk or a gopher or a mouse, everywhere you go you find a different one. So they’ll tell you a lot about the environment.”

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Paleontologist Joshua Samuels explained what all studying prehistoric rodents can tell the world about an area and a time period from which the animals came.

“Some of these really small things, the useful thing about them is that they will tell you a lot about the environment but also, they’re really useful in helping to tell time,” Samuels explained. “A lot of them, they’re short-lived. They tend not to be very geographically widespread. Something like a mastodon, they live everywhere. They can walk from one place to another real easily, but something like a chipmunk or a gopher or a mouse, everywhere you go you find a different one. So they’ll tell you a lot about the environment.”

Not only do these paleontologists have work to last them years but they also serve as living examples of a type of career the topics displayed throughout the museum can lead to. Marquart said.

“The lab is right there. You can see what they’re working on and the dig site is hundreds of feet from the back door of the museum,” Marquart said. “So you get this intimate experience with folks that are dedicating their lives to these ongoing discoveries and that’s something that we’re really really thrilled about. They get to talk to real life scientists and they get to see exhibits that they’ll never forget and they’re going to go home and tell their parents about and tell their friends about. That’s really the difference we’re into making and this opportunity allows that to grow.”

Marquart also said the collaboration with these paleontologists also helps the GFSM’s work in presenting the community with a place where an interest in science can thrive.

“The general public is stuck a lot of times finding their own research if they’re interested in something or they’re seeing it on TV or they might come across it in some news article if they see it in their social media feeds,” Marquart explained. “Very rarely does the general public have access to actually go and talk to live scientists that specialize in something that’s happening like they can at the Gray Fossil Site.

“And we’re not saying that we want every child that comes through our museum that we have a specific direction for them—that they should be the next Nichola Tessla or the next major paleontologist, but what we do want for them is to find their own interest in science.”

From learning about paleontology to seeing firsthand the kinds of animals that used to roam East Tennessee, the site and museum is ready to continue educating the community—while also fascinating them with their discoveries right here at home.

“People quite often don’t know what’s in their own backyard,” Samuels said over the rodent fossil sitting on the table in front of him. “You might have something like this sitting at your feet.” “If it wasn’t for the road,” Nye said, “we wouldn’t know either.”