Native Village
Youth and Education news
September 2010 Volume 3

Traces of Red Panda Found in Tennessee
Condensed by Native Village

It has the face of a giant panda bear and the body of a small raccoon. This unusual, cuddly-looking animal is the red panda. Red Pandas were believed to be native to the mountains of Nepal, Burma and China.

Now it appears the red panda might have roamed the long-ago forests of Tennessee.

In northeast Tennessee, paleontologists have discovered red panda fossil bones at The Gray Fossil site. The fossil dig pit was discovered only a few years ago.  So far a startling number of mammal bones have been uncovered, including:

Ground sloth

Saber-toothed cat

shovel-tusked elephant,


Eurasian badger


Red Panda


These date back more than 4,000,000 years ago in the late Miocene era.

"They were all found here. I think our list right now is over 40 different kinds of vertebrates," said paleontologist Steven Wallace.  "For example, we've already pulled almost two complete rhino skeletons. Rhinos actually had a pretty long history in North America, but they went extinct about 4 million years ago, so that's our minimum age for this site.

The Gray Fossil site was a former sinkhole that became a 5 acre pond. It was discovered during road construction in 2000.

"They brought in a lot of geotechnical engineers who noticed that not only was this unusual material, but it was full of bones," said Wallace.

But it's the red panda that's getting all the attention. A fossilized red panda tooth was discovered in 2004.

"Since that time, we found a complete lower jaw of the panda, and over the past two years, we've been recovering an entire skeleton that has a full skull," Wallace said.

Now the big news is a second red panda unearthing. "We found another skull," Wallace said. "It's clear that the animal was actually abundant here at our fossil site, and so now we're discovering multiple individuals."

At 37, Wallace has many years of fossil discoveries ahead -- only 1% of the site has been excavated.

"Yeah, I like to tell people that I'll retire long before we're finished out here. The site is so big, I figure I'll dig for the next few decades, and when I retire, they'll still be digging here.

Loren Coleman from the International Cryptozoology Museum in Maine visited the Gray Fossil Site. She learned about the red panda find.

"I think it's groundbreaking because a lot of these animals are known from one area of the world," she said." If all of a sudden they're found in North America, it gives ... hope that many of these species that we project as mostly Asian actually have a connection between the continents. One thing that I think people often forget is that, in cryptozoology, while a lot of people think there may be brand-new species, cryptozoologists are realistic to know that some of these may be relic survivors."

There is a huge list of discovered animals, "but the list of animals that we could find is just as big, and then, there's always the surprises -- I mean, I did not expect to find a panda or a Eurasian badger here,"  Wallace said.  "Who knows how many other surprises we'll get out here."

Coleman agrees. "...finding another red panda in North America makes us aware that if they've only uncovered 1 percent of the animals at the site, what are they going to find when they keep digging? It's quite exciting -- they could have a whole range of new animals there."

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