by Morgan Byrn
Have you ever stopped by the red panda exhibit at the Nashville Zoo? Visitors light up in delight as they watch Dr. Lily and Rowan climb, play, and nap in their exhibit. Today, you can usually find their homes in the treetops of Nepal, China, and Burma. They are about the size of a house cat and are herbivores. Now you might be thinking I wish they lived in Tennessee! They did long ago! How do I know? I’ll tell you and it all starts with a road.
In 2000, the state was in the middle of road construction near Gray, Tennessee. As they were working, they ran into a bit of a problem. The ground where they were going to lay the road was made of clay. The problem, clay is too soft to build a road on. The work crew decided to dig out the clay before starting roadwork. That’s when they found bones! A paleontologist discovered that the bones were from an animal. They named that spot the Gray Fossil Site.
Today, the site team has been working there for almost twenty years. Over the years, they have discovered many prehistoric fossils. The fossils include plants, mastodons, giant sloths, and even saber- tooth cats. One of the most exciting finds was the tooth of a red panda, found in 2002. The team named the red panda Bristol’s Panda.
Over the years, the paleontologists found more teeth and more bones of the red panda. To learn about the prehistoric red panda, they compared the fossils to the bones of the modern red panda. Here are some interesting things they learned from the fossils. The prehistoric red panda had small canine teeth. This means it might have been an omnivore. The prehistoric red panda also had bigger bones. This means it was built to roam and hunt on the forest floor. The fossils did show that the red panda had a long tail and a “panda thumb,” like the modern red panda. These two things help the red panda climb and balance in the treetops.
Illustration showing the sizes of the modern red panda (A) and the red panda fossils found at Gray Fossil Site (B and C), created by Dr. Wallace.
Top: Male and Female prehistoric red panda skulls from Gray Fossil Site. Bottom: Female red panda skull from Gray Fossil Site. Both pictures taken by Dr. Wallace.
If you can’t travel to the Gray Fossil Site, come visit us at the Tennessee State Museum! At the museum, visitors can see a 3D replica of the Bristol’s Panda. Paleontologist took the red panda fossils they found and put them back together. No complete skeleton was found, so they used the bones of two red pandas to make one. It’s like a giant puzzle. By doing this, we can see what the red panda’s skeleton would have looked like. Fossils are a very important part of a paleontologist’s work. Fossils can help these scientists better understand the creatures that lived in the past.
Photo of the TSM’s 3D replica on display in Natural History.
Paleontologist: a scientist that looks for and studies fossil remains. (See fossil definition below)
Prehistoric: of, relating to, or existing in times before written history.
Fossils: preserved bones, plants, or animals from the past, typically found in the ground.
Canine Teeth: sharp-pointed teeth in the front of the mouth, usually used for eating meat.
Omnivore: an animal that eats both plants and other animals.
Herbivore: an animal that eats only plants.
Where do the red pandas live today?
Why do paleontologists study fossils?
Why do paleontologists think prehistoric red pandas were omnivores?
List two differences that paleontologists found while studying the prehistoric red panda.
What prehistoric animal would you like to discover at Gray Fossil Site?
Create your own prehistoric animal. Like a paleontologist, name your new find. Describe it and then draw it.
Nashville Zoo Live Red Panda
Gray Fossil Site Journey of a Fossil Video
Tennessee State Social Studies Standard:
Life Science Standard
5.LS4: Biological Change:
Unity and Diversity
1) Analyze and interpret data from fossils to describe types of organisms and their environments that existed long ago. Compare similarities and differences of those to living organisms and their environments. Recognize that most kinds of animals (and plants) that once lived on Earth are now extinct.
Morgan Byrn is the Family Programs Coordinator at the Tennessee State Museum.