The Gray Fossil Site in Gray, Tenn., preserves plant and animal fossils that date back 7 to 4.5 million years.

In May of 2000, Tennessee Department of Transportation highway crews working on a road-widening project in Northeast Tennessee noticed an unusually dark clay-rich deposit and an abundance of fossil bones in dirt that was being moved. State officials, geologists and paleontologists rushed in to investigate and the site was found to harbor a fantastic number of extinct and ancient animal remains.

The Gray Fossil Site, as it became known, is the only site in the entire Appalachian region that preserves plant and animal fossils from the Miocene Era. Scientists have aged the Gray Fossil Site between 7 to 4.5 million years based on the presence of the rhinoceros genus Teleoceras and the discovery in 2003 of a short-faced bear (Plionarctos).

Once a series of sinkholes formed form the collapse of an underground cave, today the Gray Fossil Site is the world’s largest fossil tapir site, with nearly 100 different individual tapirs recovered since May 2000, and is home to the world’s only near-complete fossil red panda.

“As a researcher and educator, I can tell you that this fossil site is truly a regional, national and international treasure that is incredibly unique,” said Gray Fossil Site Museum Director Dr. Blaine Schubert.

Visitors can learn more about this ancient site at the Gray Fossil Site Museum and Visitor Center (formally known as the East Tennessee State University and General Shale Brick Natural History Museum and Visitor Center at the Gray Fossil Site) in Gray, Tenn.

The small museum features fossil remains and an active research lab and offers guided tours of the exhibits and the fossil excavation site. Kids can enjoy time in the “Dig Pit” full of fossil finds. Visitors can watch excavations taking place on-site from May to October (please call ahead for schedules).

“Having a museum and educational facility directly on a fossil site is extremely rare and provides unique opportunities for hands-on learning,” Schubert said. “It is important to note that we have excavated less than 2 percent of the site, and we will undoubtedly continue to make incredible news-breaking discoveries as we continue to dig.”

The museum and visitor center in Gray, Tenn., are open Tuesday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. ET. Please call ahead to check seasonal on-site excavation schedules (May-October), if that is a priority for your visit.

For more information, visit http://www.etsu.edu/naturalhistorymuseum/default.aspx or call 423-439-3659.