ETSU paleontologist publishes article in 'Nature' on discoveries

  JOHNSON CITY -- Tomorrow's issue of the highly prestigious journal Nature will introduce two new species never before recorded within the scientific literature. Both were found at the Gray Fossil Site in Washington County, Tenn.
  "It's the dream of every paleontologist to discover a new species at some point during his or her career and to have the opportunity to name it," said Dr. Steven Wallace, a paleontologist at East Tennessee State University and lead author of the article. "But we already have two!"
  According to Wallace, Pristinailurus bristoli -- named after ETSU's Paleontology Coordinator Larry Bristol who discovered the first specimens of the new red (lesser) panda -- is the earliest and most primitive panda so far recorded.
  Although the greater panda is essentially a bear, red pandas are more closely related to raccoons, Wallace explains. In addition, living red pandas, which are slightly smaller than this new fossil species, are only found in the Himalayas and have a highly specialized diet of bamboo.
  However, there has been no evidence of bamboo at the Gray Fossil Site, suggesting that the new species could survive on other types of food prior to arriving in the southern Appalachians. Here it may have utilized a fossil form of River Cane, a bamboo native to East Tennessee, for food.
  The other critter, Arctomeles dimolodontus, is a type of weasel, specifically a badger, and is also of Eurasian origin. While the new red panda was a very primitive creature, Wallace says this particular weasel is highly derived and is one of the most advanced of its group. Initial interpretations of the unique teeth of this animal suggest a diet of hard vegetation, possibly specialized for the acorns and/or hickory nuts which are abundant as fossils at the site.
  Both discoveries also provide proof to the theory that animals were able to move between the continents of North America and Eurasia during the late Miocene to early Pliocene.
  In addition to the new species, the Nature article will give an introduction of the Gray Fossil Site to scientists around the world.
  "Many have already heard about us, but now we will definitely be on the map," Wallace said.
  In addition to holding distinction as having the largest recorded finding of fossil tapirs, the Gray site is also significant because it fills in an important gap in history.
  "Before the discovery of the site, there were a lot of blanks in the fossil records pertaining to this area. Now we can now start filling in some of those pages."
  Wallace adds that the Gray Fossil Site is also unique to any other similar-aged site in the United States because it records a forest ecosystem. Most other sites record open plains environments similar to the Great Plains or they have a coastal influence, like those found along the Gulf Coast and Florida.
  In addition to the research described above, work continues at the site. Most recently, Wallace has been recovering the remains of the Miocene/Pliocene rhino, Teleoceras, with the assistance of two visiting scientists from the Florida Museum of Natural History. Although this animal has been recovered throughout the continent, this specimen represents the most complete individual skeleton in eastern North America. Of further interest to the researchers is the fact the rhino was a pregnant female.
  The five-acre Gray Fossil Site was first discovered in 2000. Interpretations suggest that it was a sinkhole, which filled to become a pond or lake surrounded by a dense oak and hickory forest between 4.5 million and 7 million years ago. Animals grazing or running away from predators may not have seen the large sinkhole and likely fell in and drowned or became stuck.
  An $8 million federal transportation grant awarded to ETSU in 2002, along with approximately $2 million in private matching funds, will be used to build a 33,000-square-foot visitors center and research complex at the fossil site. A groundbreaking ceremony is being planned for November, with construction expected to be complete in late 2006.
  Dr. Xiaoming Wang from the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles joined Wallace in writing this Nature article.