KNOXVILLE — Fossils unearthed in Upper East Tennessee roadwork will tell scientists much about the ancient wildlife and geological evolution of Tennessee, University of Tennessee scientists said Friday.
The remains, found in road construction near Johnson City, Tenn., include bones from a mastodon, giant sloths, horses, turtles, and hoofed animals known as tapirs.
Dr. Paul Parmalee, professor emeritus of anthropology, said the find will tell scientists more about wildlife diversity, range distribution, and perhaps even unknown species.
“Normally in a site this old, you may recover the remains of one leg bone, an isolated tooth, or a skull,” Parmalee said, “but here we have skeletons of maybe 15 tapirs. I’ve worked on ancient fauna for a lot of years and I’m very excited about this.”
Parmalee, who is studying the site with UT anthropology professor Walter Klippel, said the animals probably came to the site for water, got trapped in the mud and drowned.
UT geology professor Michael Clark said it was likely a slow, prolonged process that trapped and preserved the animals, not a sudden, violent event such as a mudslide.
“It was not a mudslide because sediments that contain the fossils are uniformly stratified and laminated,” Clark said. “Also, vertebrae in many of the skeletal remains are still together, so it was not a violent accumulation, but one of standing water.”
Authorities are struggling to protect the site from souvenir seekers. Clark said plunderers are wasting their time, since the fossils often crumble when exposed to the air.
“If they are taking these fossils to put on the mantle and show to their grandchildren they better get an urn,” Clark said. “Without very careful preservation, they simply disintegrate.”
Clark estimates the fossils to be at least 700,000 years old, which would make the animals from the Ice Age, or the Pleistocene period.
A clue of the site’s age is that it was once a lake, sinkhole or other low-lying area, but now lies in the side of a hill, Clark said.
“That requires some sort of landscape inversion, and that takes a long interval of time,” Clark said.
“The significance of this find is enormous because it gives us a window in time of what the ancient landscape here in the valley of East Tennessee might have looked like nearly a million years ago.”