For an animal to become fossilized at all is a rare occurrence, so the variety of different plant and animal species preserved here, all in the same place, is truly remarkable. Scientists determined that ancient animals journeyed to the lush, watery sinkhole and eventually, as animals naturally died, slowly sank to the bottom where their bones would remain very well preserved…even 4.5 million years later. The fossilized bones were found to be very well preserved because of decaying plant material also in the sinkhole, that kept out the oxygen that would have caused the bones to decompose. While the fossils found at Gray Fossil Site are not the oldest ever found in the United States or even in Tennessee, the formation of this particular site is truly unique because it is the only Miocene-Epoch fossil site in the Appalachians.
Since the monumental discovery of this ancient fossil site in Gray, scientists are now able to reveal and share with the rest of the world a unique look into what life may have been like in Eastern Tennessee during the Miocene Epoch. Rhinos, tapirs, saber-toothed cats and many other animals roamed the forests while alligators, fish, frogs, snails and other aquatic species lived in ponds and lake environments in what is present-day Tennessee. Many plant and animal species alive during that time have now become extinct; however, others have not.
Photographs Courtesy of the Natural History Museum