By Sarah Colson
“Here’s the fossil site; have fun.” That, essentially, was the message from East Tennessee State University when Dr. Steven Wallace arrived to become assistant professor in ETSU’s department of geography, geology and geomatics in the fall of 2001, when the department was part of the College of Applied Science and Technology.
Now, Wallace, who is curator of vertebrates at the ETSU and General Shale Natural History Museum and fossil site in Gray, serves as the associate professor in a department that has taken on a life, and a title, of its own. The Department of Geosciences at ETSU has evolved over the past 15 years and Wallace says the fossil site – which features Miocene-era fossils dating from 7 to 4.5 million years ago – has experienced just as much exciting growth, development and change.
“When I first arrived, it was literally just, ‘here’s the fossil site; have fun,’” Wallace says. “We really didn’t have a department that was focusing on geosciences in general or paleontology. We really didn’t have facilities or the modern skeletal collection so everything was sort of, ‘ok we have to build from the ground up.’ At the time, it sure seemed like a daunting task, but now 15 years later, I can’t believe how much we’ve accomplished.”
Those accomplishments include paleontology and GIS (Geographic Information Systems) tracks within ETSU’s Geosciences department that stay at capacity year after year; an impressive collection of about 17,000 modern skeletons; access to a full-functioning museum and fossil site; and a staff full of vertebrate paleontologists that has proven quite a draw for graduate students.
“I mean, I can remember when you drove down to the gas station to use the restroom,” Wallace says of his early days at the Gray fossil site, “when you had to take water out with you because there was nothing else out there. It was just a fenced-in fossil site and now we have a museum; everything is right there. It’s wonderful. The skeletal collection downstairs—I remember trying to teach classes and not having skeletons to teach classes. We’ve come so, so far.
“Having three vertebrate paleontologists is really rare to have. It’s one thing to have a handful of just paleontologists but we’re all vertebrate paleos. …So if you want to go into this field, this is a great place to come because you can get your masters, you can get really exposed to every step in the process and then we can send you on.”
While preparing students and sending them out is a mission of both the museum and the program, Wallace also says reaching out to the community has always been a top priority. The museum holds paleontology camps throughout the summer and also boasts a fair amount of regular volunteers. The site is always looking for more, too, Wallace says, not least to help screen sediment.
“We’re probably the only site in the world that screens everything. It means we have a huge backlog of sediment that still needs to be screened and even once it’s screened somebody has to pick through all that. That’s where you find fish and frogs and snakes and salamanders and rodents. That’s where you find all the little things and more often than not we’re finding that some of the coolest things come out of that picking.”
A unique collection
All of that picking, and in some cases, a lot of digging, has resulted in a unique collection. After the site was discovered during a state road-widening project in 2000, the paleontologist community realized what they had in the small town of Gray was the largest fossil site ever discovered in Tennessee, and one of the largest in the country.
Just two years later, the rare red panda was discovered. The site now boasts one of the largest collections of tapirs in the country. The findings to date at the Gray Fossil Site are “just the tip of the iceberg,” according to Wallace.
He should know. Wallace earned his bachelor’s degree from Bowling Green State University in Ohio before going on for his master’s at Fort Hays State University (Kansas). In 2001, the same year he took the job at the site at ETSU, Wallace earned his Ph.D. in vertebrate paleontology at the University of Iowa. While a doctoral student, Wallace earned the Samuel Calvin Award for Outstanding Geoscience Ph.D. Student and an award from the Iowa Microscopy Society in recognition of outstanding student research.
Bearing all of those credentials, Wallace says he chose to come to Gray because, “if the site was half as good as they were thinking, it was going to be great. I knew I could make an entire career here. It turned out the site is 10 times better than what they were thinking.”
One reason the site exceeds expectations is its unique ecosystem for paleontology work.
“There’s a lot in one place, obviously,” Wallace says, “but it’s just so different than other sites that are the same age. When you look at where in the United States you find sites that are fossil sites that represent the same age, you have to go to the Great Plains or you go to the gulf coastal plain or Florida. So they typically represent very different types of ecosystems. Ours is not only a lot of material, but it’s a very different system than we’re used to seeing. That alone makes it important because you’re filling in this gap in the record of what was going on in eastern North America at that time. Gray’s telling us a lot about it. Of course it also means we’re going to find a lot of new species because it is so different, which is a neat problem to have.
More (lots more) where that came from
“We’ve only dug about 2 percent of the whole site,” Wallace says. “We have over 60-65 different kinds of vertebrates at the site; that’s just vertebrates. That’s not even talking about plants or invertebrates. … In particular, we’ve got a really neat sabretooth cat at the site that we’ve only found bits and pieces of. Most of our carnivores are pretty rare.”
The past few summers, Wallace says, have been particularly exciting. Since the site was discovered during construction, there are lots of fragments that give the scientists clues to what is out there waiting to be discovered.
“And so we have this list of all these animals we know are there simply because we find bits and pieces,” Wallace says. “It seems like every summer, one of those animals that was only known from a single tooth or whatever, we finally find a skeleton because we’re digging, we’re getting below the construction zone, and we’ll see there’s another skeleton. It’s only a matter of time before it’s one of these big carnivores. We know they’re there; we have the pieces so we know they’re there somewhere; it’s just a matter of moving enough dirt to find a skeleton.”
That’s exactly what happened when Wallace’s team found the mastodon tusks last summer. Wallace says he’s hopeful there’s an entire skeleton underneath the dirt that hasn’t yet been moved. Before discovering the mammoth-sized elephant, Wallace says all the elephant material they had fit into one small drawer. Wallace claims the mastodon they’re finding will be bigger than the triceratops that was on display a few years ago.
“We had maybe some tiny pieces of ivory, so we knew there was a big elephant there,” Wallace says. “We just didn’t know what it was. Last year, we found it. When we first pulled out a piece of tusk it was the biggest piece we had found in the whole site. Well now that tusk, of course, led all the way back to the skull. And upper tusks are between 10 and 12 feet long. And the lower tusks are going to be about a foot long. It’s going to be huge. … The lower jaw alone is nearly five feet long. So it’s going to be really, really big.
“We don’t know for sure, there’s no way to know until you dig, but based on what we found, we think it’s all going to be there. We found the tusks first and they led back to the skull. The jaws were still underneath so it was still attached to the skull. And then when we went around the skull, the neck vertebrae were there. So we removed all of that last year and we’re still working on it. This year we’re going to see how much of the body is there…. This year we’ve got a really nice crew out there and we’re moving a lot of dirt. I’m hoping this big elephant’s going to be a neat trophy to show for our work.”
While watching the majority of a skeleton emerge after hours and hours of labor is rewarding, Wallace says it’s not exactly what keeps him and his crew coming back day after day.
“There’s a quote in the museum that I love: ‘What really keeps us going is not what we find, but what we might find.’ It’s like digging for gold. It’s not the fossils we find that keep us digging, it’s what we might find. … We have a long ways to go. And really exploring a lot of the site is probably one of our big objectives. I feel like we really have just scratched the surface. So the more people we can get involved, the more support we can get, the more dirt we can move. That keeps us excited.”