ETSU’s Gray Fossil Site has banner year

Published 12:56 pm Tuesday, June 20, 2023

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

JOHNSON CITY – Looking for something fun and educational to do this summer? Consider a stop in Gray.

Overseen by the Don Sundquist Center of Excellence in Paleontology at East Tennessee State University, the Gray Fossil Site and Museum has been a center of research and teaching for more than two decades, with scientists identifying dozens of extinct animal and plant species. And the last year has been an incredible one, with researchers discovering species ranging from large predators to tiny critters previously unknown to science.

Digging is underway now for the new field season, and staff are currently busy excavating a Mastodon Pit.

Subscribe to our free email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

“The Gray Fossil Site and Museum is a truly dynamic hub for science and education,” said David Moscato, science communication specialist. “Our researchers, staff and volunteers work so hard to preserve this incredible place, and I invite the public to come out and see for themselves all the exciting work happening here.”

Incredible year in review

Making headlines throughout the United States was the unearthing of an animal named Borophagus, a member of an extinct group commonly called “bone-crushing dogs.” So named for their powerful teeth and jaws, this is the first evidence of any animals in the dog family from the site.

Emily Bōgner, a doctoral student at the University of California, Berkeley, and alumna of ETSU’s paleontology master’s program, and Dr. Joshua Samuels, associate professor in the ETSU Department of Geosciences and curator at the Gray Fossil Site and Museum, conducted the research, published in the “Journal of Paleontology.”  

“The identification of a bone-crushing dog adds to the list of terrestrial apex predators at the Gray Fossil Site, the other being a saber-tooth cat,” said Bōgner. “With two large predators on land and alligators in the water, herbivores at the site would have had to be on high alert.” 

Comparing this single limb bone with those of a wide range of modern and fossil dogs allowed the researchers to predict the size of this extinct dog. Estimated to have weighed between 115 and160 pounds, the Borophagus was similar in size to the largest living wolves.

The ancient forest of Gray also represents a new habitat for these bone-crushing dogs, which more commonly inhabited grasslands.

But it is far from the site’s only big news.

Researchers also identified an extinct species of painted turtle, one that is entirely new to science and unique to Northeast Tennessee. Scientists named it Chrysemys corniculata, or the “horned painted turtle.” The name refers to a conspicuous pair of pointy projections on the front edge of the shell.

This research was published in the “Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society” by Dr. Steven Jasinski, professor at the Harrisburg University of Science and Technology and alumnus of ETSU’s paleontology master’s program.

Add to the list, too, fossil moles.

A recent tudy published in “Palaeontologia Electronica” is the first to analyze the fossil moles of the Gray Site. By comparing fossil bones and teeth with those of other living and extinct mole species, the researchers noted four different types of extinct moles, including two species that are entirely new to science: one that dug in the dirt and one that swam in the ancient pond. 

Samuels and Danielle Oberg, a doctoral student at the University of Arkansas and graduate of ETSU’s paleontology graduate program, conducted the research.  

ETSU, named the 2023 Top Adventure College, and the Appalachian Highlands are an outdoor enthusiast’s dream.

Learn more about the site at