Unearthed Creatures: The discovery of the Red Panda

The fossilized remains of more than 80 different types of plants and animals have been unearthed at Gray Fossil Site and, to date, nearly 10,000 specimens have been recovered from less than 2 percent of the total fossil deposit. Alligators, camels, sloth, "elephant", rhinos and tapirs are just some of the various types of animals that have been revealed. Every year on average, one additional species is recovered from the site. Tennessee's Gray Fossil Site is home to the most fossil tapirs found in the world and also home to two species entirely new to science. The U-Haul Tennessee SuperGraphic features the newly discovered species of ancient red panda (Pristinailurus bristoli), and also honors the site for having the most complete red panda fossil material, at over 90 percent complete.

In 2002, just two years after the discovery of the Gray Fossil Site, a small carnivore canine of unknown significance was recovered from the fossil site. With a multitude of fossils accumulating from the Miocene find, work continued on the site until a second discovery of an unfamiliar tooth — this time a molar (M1) — occurred in the fall of 2003. The M1 exhibited characteristic cusps and lateral grooves consistent with the red panda family, Ailuridae, but with some notable differences. The unique morphology warranted the distinction of the Gray site red panda as both a new genus and species. Apart from a single tooth from a more recent red panda species found in Washington State in 1977, the specimen from Gray represents the only other red panda find in North America. No one ever expected to find a red panda in the Appalachian Mountains.The red panda from the Gray site was given the name Pristinailurus bristoli, honoring Larry Bristol, the researcher who discovered the enigmatic molar while walking his dog one day. Because the specimen was determined to be an ancestral to the modern genus, Ailurus, the prefix "pristin" (meaning former) was added to the scientific name. In other words, the name literally means: "Bristol's former panda".

In the coming years, additional Red Panda material was unearthed — including a lower right jaw with most of the teeth intact, found in early 2006, and a nearly-complete skeleton found eroding near the surface in fall 2007. Missing only a few ribs, a foot, some tail vertebrae, and other bits and pieces, the new skeleton is the most complete fossil of any species of red panda (ailurid) ever recovered! Consequently, a more detailed comparison of Pristinailurus bristoli to the living red panda is now possible. Initial results suggest that the skeleton recovered in Gray has both primitive and derived characteristics. Furthermore, this information, in addition to the continuing ecological reconstruction of the site, will be used to develop theories and draw conclusions about the habits of the Miocene red panda. (For instance, the modern red panda is a specialized bamboo-eater, but evidence collected in Gray suggests that bamboo did not make up a large portion of the Miocene red panda diet.)

And the discoveries continue…In the summer of 2010 a new red panda skull was uncovered in the second test pit opened that year. The second skull appears to be complete but is still in the preparation stage. Given the size of the Gray Fossil Site (nearly 5 acres and averaging 100 ft deep) and the small percentage excavated so far (only about 1%), the fossil deposit will likely yield many more red panda specimens over the coming decades.

Basic Timeline

Summer, 2002 – Wallace discovers isolated canine (ETMNH 359)

Fall, 2003 – Bristol finds molar which allows identification (ETMNH 360)

Spring, 2006 – Crew finds lower jaw (ETMNH 596)

Fall, 2007 – Supplee discovers nearly complete skeleton (ETMNH 3596)

Summer, 2010 – Crew finds a second skull in TP2-2010 (Yet to be catalouged)

Photographs Courtesy of the Natural History Museum