East Tennessee was once home to a stunning diversity of remarkable animals, including rhinos, tapirs, mastodons, alligators, and more. We know all of this thanks to the fossil-rich clays of the Gray Fossil Site, located in Gray, TN, which preserve an ancient ecosystem dating back around 5 million years. Back then, the site was a large pond surrounded by a lush forest. Now, there’s another animal to add to our picture of this ancient ecosystem: peccaries!
Peccaries may look like pigs, but they’re not. True pigs, members of the family Suidae, are native to Europe, Asia, and Africa. Peccaries, on the other hand, belong to the family Tayassuidae, and live in the Americas. In some places, they’re also known as javelinas. Like pigs, they are medium-sized omnivorous animals with small tusks.
The crew at the Gray Fossil Site have been pulling up peccary bones for many years, but a new study has finally investigated these fossils and revealed that there were two different extinct species of peccary roaming the ancient forest of Tennessee: Mylohyus elmorei and Prosthennops serus. These peccaries were identified by well-preserved remains of their skulls, including nearly-complete lower jaws of both species.
These findings are particularly exciting since neither of these species has ever been found in this part of the country before. Prosthennops serus has been found in fossil sites around the United States, but never before in the Appalachian region, and Mylohyus elmorei has only ever been found in one region of central Florida, more than 900 kilometers to the south. Details of the peccaries’ teeth suggest they spent their lives browsing on the leaves and fruits of succulent plants, so they would have been right at home in the Gray Fossil Site ecosystem, which we know from plant fossils was rich with tasty vegetation.
This research was published in the journal PeerJ by two alumni of the East Tennessee State University paleontology graduate program, Evan Doughty and Lauren Lyon, working alongside two of the Gray Fossil Site’s paleontologists, Dr. Steven Wallace and Dr. Blaine Schubert, who are also ETSU professors.