A few days ago Gerry Dinkins, our Curator of Malacology & Natural History, welcomed two researchers from East Tennessee State University to his lab at the museum. Dr. Blaine Schubert and Master’s student, Matt Bushell, are paleontologists who study large predatory mammals from the last ice age. For his thesis, Bushell is researching jaguars (Panthera onca augusta), which existed in parts of Tennessee until roughly 12,000 years ago.
Bushell and Schubert were looking through collections developed by Dr. Paul Parmalee, our founding natural history curator, for whom our collection is named. The materials that interested them are from cave sites around Tennessee–where large, ice age predators like dire wolves, smilodons, and jaguars liked to reside. Caves made perfect dens, and now they make perfect sites for researchers to make interesting discoveries. Inside a cave, an animal would have natural protection from the elements, which allowed them to raise and feed their young in peace. Protection from the elements also preserved the animals’ remains when they died in those same caves.
The bones in the image above are from a (very) large bear (Plionarctos) found in one such cave. Dr. Schubert is a renowned scholar of prehistoric bears. These bones tell our researchers a fascinating story of how the bear lived and died thousands of years ago. Based on its skull size, our paleontologists estimate that it was probably four or five hundred pounds. The bear also had injuries that healed in its lifetime, including a large puncture wound near its eye!
As technology improves, researchers will continue to utilize these important collections, uncovering more stories and information about the natural history of Tennessee.
- “Bears of Yesterday” Wise About Bears, March 2019.
- “Short-faced bear fossils found at Gray Site in East Tennessee,” Associated Press, AL.com. Jan 14, 2019.
- Black, Riley. “How Jaguars Survived the Ice Age.” National Geographic. January 27, 2016.
- Grimm, David. “The legendary dire wolf may not have been a wolf at all.“, Science Magazine, American Association for the Advancement of Science. January 13, 2021
- Pickrell, John. “Saber-tooth surprise: Fossils redraw picture of the fearsome big cat.” National Geographic. August 5, 2019.