Giant mastodont skeleton discovered at Gray Fossil Site

Published 10:07 am Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Photo contributed by ETSU In October, researchers at the Gray Fossil Site uncovered a portion of a skull with visible teeth. Researchers have now confirmed the skull belonged to a giant mastadont.

Photo contributed by ETSU
In October, researchers at the Gray Fossil Site uncovered a portion of a skull with visible teeth. Researchers have now confirmed the skull belonged to a giant mastadont.

JOHNSON CITY – The 2015 field season at the East Tennessee State University and General Shale Natural History Museum and Visitor Center at the Gray Fossil Site is wrapping up with a huge discovery. According to paleontologists at ETSU, this find is “huge” in terms of its scientific potential, as well as the overall size of the animal.
“We have known that an elephant-like animal existed at the Gray Fossil Site since the site was discovered in 2000 during a road construction project,” said Dr. Steven Wallace, excavation director and museum curator. “Earlier researchers suggested that ‘elephant’ remains from the site might belong to a group known as the shovel-tusk elephants, so called for their large, flat lower tusks that are reminiscent of large shovels. This identification was always uncertain because flattened lower tusks and diagnostic cheek teeth hadn’t been recovered.”
As excavations began this year at the Gray Fossil Site, various target areas were selected. One target was the location where Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) workers first hit and recovered tusk fragments in 2000.
“Although this tusk area was a primary target for the 2015 field season, our work there was postponed because a duck decided to nest in that area,” said Shawn Haugrud, lab and field manager at the Gray Fossil Site and the Natural History Museum. “Once the duck was finished, we moved in and began a number of excavation units. We immediately started finding tusk fragments under the duck area.”
Following this, Wallace contacted TDOT and asked if they would be willing to donate any remaining tusk fragments in their collection recovered in 2000.
“TDOT graciously donated the remains, and the pieces fit together with specimens (that were) recovered this season,” noted Haugrud, who was put in charge of overseeing the field crew for the first time this year.
Haugrud worked with site surveyor Brian Compton to map all the tusk fragments in the disturbed surface sediments. Using the resulting map, they were able to narrow in on the most promising tusk area, and the excitement really began to pick up in late August as the tip of an intact tusk appeared. The excavation team then moved in the opposite direction and soon hit more tusk – a continuation of the same tusk. By October, part of the skull was uncovered with visible teeth.
“As soon as teeth were discovered, I rushed to the site for a look,” noted Dr. Blaine Schubert, executive director of the Gray Fossil Site and Natural History Museum. “It was clear that we had something quite different from a shovel-tusker – we had an early mastodont!”
There is no doubt that ETSU paleontologists are ecstatic about the discovery of a mastodont (also spelled mastodon).
According to Dr. Jim Mead, chair of the Department of Geosciences and museum curator, “There are many types of extinct elephant-like animals that roamed North America over time, ranging from mammoths to mastodonts, and stegodons to shovel-tuskers. Mammoths weren’t around in North America at the time of the Gray Fossil Site, but we still had three or four possibilities to consider. Now that we know it is mastodont, this is incredibly exciting for us, the university, and the world of paleontology.”
“We have all had our fingers and toes crossed that we would hit more of this ‘elephant,’ and that was the area that had the greatest known potential,” said Wallace. “We now have a cranium, lower jaw, teeth, tusks, and neck vertebrae. This suggests that we have an entire skeleton out there, and we will be working on this for years.”
Schubert notes that the identification of mastodont from the site is extraordinary and unique. “While relatives of these giant animals were common during the Ice Age at sites like Saltville, Virginia, they are rare from older sites in North America,” he said. “Thus, paleontologists know very little about ancestral mastodonts on the continent, especially in eastern North America. Now that we have this remarkable Mio-Pliocene skeleton, we can see that it has extraordinary transitional features. This skeleton has the potential of filling significant gaps in our understanding of their evolutionary history.”
Visitors to the ETSU and General Shale Natural History Museum may see the mastodont project in action. This winter, Shawn Haugrud and his crew will work on the tusks, skull, teeth, and vertebrae in the Prep Lab. They will clean and put them back together in the laboratory upstairs at the museum. Excavation of the rest of the skeleton will start in 2016.
The Natural History Museum is located 1.8 miles off Exit 13 on Interstate 26. Regular museum hours are 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday.
For more information, call 423-439-3659 or toll free 866-202-6223, or visit the museum at For disability accommodations, call the ETSU Office of Disability Services at 423-439-8346.

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