It’s Tapirs All The Way Down…

Gray Fossil Site and Museum exterior

saber-tooth cats and tapirs and bears, oh my!

I was not a particularly happy camper this morning, having woken up balls-early for a road trip out to Boone, NC. Thankfully, my mood had vastly improved by the time we reached the Gray Fossil Site and Natural History Museum outside Johnson City, TN, enabling me to better appreciate their specimens, exhibits, and dig site. I went to the museum with a group of vertebrate paleontologists, and each one commented gleefully on the cushy setup — “the dig areas are just meters away from the prep lab and collections. METERS!” You can do two things to make a paleontologist very happy: offer him/her a beer, or offer him/her a dig site on museum land with a specially designed prep lab nearby. Yes, they are simultaneously easy to please and exceedingly exacting in their expectations. I, on the other hand, was just happy to get a behind-the-scenes tour with some of the lead scientists.

We started on the main museum floor, with a video presentation explaining the history of the Gray Fossil Site. The story starts about 5 million years ago with a limestone cave that collapsed to form a sinkhole, where Miocene-epoch fauna came to eat, drink, be merry (or not), die, and sink to the bottom. Minerals seeped into their bones, layers of sediment settled on top of older layers of sediment… Lots of time went by, until, voilà, there were many many fossils to be found. But by whom? The Tennessee Department of Transportation, of course! In May of 2000, while preparing to make a new highway, TDOT unearthed some bones, which were originally thought to be from the Pleistocene epoch (think ice age). Once they discovered the alligator skull, though, they knew they were looking at a much warmer climate, so the site had to be much older. The state government worked with Eastern Tennessee State University to protect and preserve the site. Not only that, but they decided to build a 33,000 square foot natural history museum on site, so we the public could better appreciate the significance of the find. The museum has been open since 2007, and the educational annex since 2011, and it seems to be growing, with more traveling exhibitions planned, as well as a lecture series. The dig site itself has grown in the last year, since the museum was finally able to buy some of the surrounding land (the economic downturn had a positive side, it turns out). All in all, it’s a great tale of scientific discovery. The introductory film definitely covers all this history, but doesn’t quite capture the thrill felt by the scientific community. Perhaps it’s the oddly placed homages to horror/slasher films. I’m not kidding. Forget the portentous opening shots of teenagers walking over a field, not knowing what lies beneath — at multiple points the film employed “killer cam” style first-person POV shots, clearly supposed to be a Miocene mammal running through the woods, but the rumbling and snorting evoked werewolves more than tapirs.

Gray Fossil Site diorama

Alligator vs Tapir

After the movie, you enter the main exhibition gallery, with its fabulous dioramas full of painted wildlife and articulated skeletons. The museum treats its specimens with loving respect, which is evident from the lighting and presentation. There are a fair number of hands-on components, such as touchable casts of various bones and carapaces, a sample dig pit where you get to find specimens and bring them to another station for identification, touch-screen computer games, and pull-out displays. Well, the pull-out displays are meant to be interactive, but there’s no real sense reciprocity between the exhibit element and the visitor. For one thing, while the contents of each case are meant to answer a particular question, the questions themselves aren’t ones the visitor would necessarily pose. Beverly Serrell wrote a book on label writing that I highly recommend, and she notes that while it’s very easy to add a question mark, it’s actually quite hard to find a question that comes off as real and not as condescending. When you read a label saying “do plants fossilize?” and there’s a drawer right next to it, is there any real doubt what the answer will be? It’s hardly a surprise, so there’s no real point in making it a question as opposed to a statement. I know it sounds like I’m being nit-picky, but it’s a simple thing that could be so easily changed, and it does affect the visitor’s experience, since you want her to feel like she’s having a genuine relationship with the museum.

Speaking of little things that make the museum experience delightful, I love it when exhibit designers come up with quirky ways of explaining a particular topic. At one point, the exhibition changes focus from ecosystem interactions in the Miocene to how the landscape transitioned over the millennia. In order to showcase these gradual shifts, the museum came up with a series of “weather”, “traffic” and “news” reports from different distinct periods. Wondering what to wear during the Pleistocene, or which critters are hogging the roads during the Paleocene? Pick up the phone to find out!

The last section of the main exhibition deals with the modern-day aspects of the Gray site: rather than focusing on ecosystems, it addresses how scientists know what they do about the fossils. It gives you a good idea of what goes on in the labs upstairs, from mold and cast creation to relative dating techniques (not to be confused with Appalachian-style romance). If that’s not enough, visitors can volunteer to help out with the field work or in the preb lab. I’m going to skip over the rest of the exhibit elements (gasp – sacrilege!) in favor of talking about the prep lab, collections and field site, which I got to see up close and in person.

butvar 76 holds together a tapir skull

Spidey would make a great preparator

First, the prep lab. There were a surprising number of people working in the lab even in the middle of the summer field season, all busily cleaning fossil fragments with what are now some very dirty toothbrushes. They have these sweet tables filled with sand on the bottom for dealing with bigger fossils: you can tilt and rotate the specimen to whatever angle you need and still have it remain stable. The good people at ETSU also came up with something I can only describe as “spiderman webbing” to hold together fossil fragments. The filler is made of butvar-76 (aka polyvinyl butyral), and it not only looks cool, it’s reversible. If you find additional fossil fragments to fill in gaps, or you need to dismantle the specimen to correct a mistake or even do further science to it, you can dissolve the filler with acetone without harming any of the fragments. Even better, it’s super strong and very flexible, which means it won’t crack when you’re rebuilding delicate structures or thin bony plates. Basically, someone needs to feature this stuff in an action movie or comic book.

On to collections. Now, anyone who’s been in the collections section of a natural history museum would have a pretty good idea of what the ETSU space looks like, because let’s face it, there’s only so much variation in cabinet storage styles. Inside these massive cabinets are trays upon trays of bones from alligators, snakes, frogs, salamanders, red pandas, camels, turtles, saber-toothed cats, short-faced bears, two-tusked elephants, rhinos, and, of course, tapirs. The Gray Fossil Site is the largest deposit of tapir fossils in the world, after all. IN THE WORLD. That’s a lot of tapirs, my friend. Maybe the elderly woman in parable about cosmological infinite regression misspoke, and meant to say “tapirs” instead of “turtles“. As for red pandas, the ones at Gray are slightly bigger than the ones we’ve all seen at the zoo (and those are mostly hair, anyway), and they just uncovered their biggest one yet. The Gray Fossil Site often collaborates with the Knoxville Zoo, which happens to have the most successful red panda breeding program in the Western hemisphere, so that the biologists and paleontologists can better understand the past, present and future of these animals.

fused fossil rhino rib

The rhino’s broken ribs re-fused into one

My favorite story from the collections came from a gigantic cabinet in the back that housed a single individual, a male rhino. Many of the bones were amazingly preserved, and there were some really neat pathologies (i.e., injuries) that hinted at the rhino’s life story. Rhinos are part of the order Perissodactyla, or “odd-toed” ungulates, and they have three toes on each foot. That’s a lot of weight for each toe. At some point in his life, this poor guy broke a rib, and the inner toe on his hind foot got crushed by something really heavy. The scientists joked that a female rhino could have stepped on his toe and caused him to fall during, um, an intimate moment, but they didn’t really think much more about it. Then one day, they got the remains of a male rhino that had lived in a zoo, and noticed that the modern rhino had the same rib injury as their fossil. They called the zoo and asked what had happened to Henry the rhino, and learned that Henry had, in fact, fallen off a female. So it turs out their little joke may be the real story. I feel a fair amount of sympathy for the males, having myself witnessed a pair of rhinos awkwardly trying to get it on at the zoo. Rather, the male was trying to get it on, and the female took no notice and kept moving toward a patch of grass, with the male trying desperately to hold on — to her, to the moment, and to his dignity.

I can’t finish on a paragraph about the sex lives of rhinos, so let’s end with the dig pits themselves. The Gray Fossil site covers about 5 acres, which should be good news to any vertebrate paleontologist because it means you can’t really run out of fossils. There are bags and bags of clay dirt just waiting to be sifted, but people are still out there digging up new things. I think they just finished sifting through the 2006 bags, which means that there are 6 years’ worth of fossils just waiting for volunteers to discover them. So what are you waiting for? Start sifting!

One Thought on “It’s Tapirs All The Way Down…

  1. Pingback: REVIEW — The Gray Fossil Site & Natural History Museum | Paleocave Blog

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