JOHNSON CITY, TN – A new species of fossil dog has been identified by East Tennessee State University paleontologist Dr. Steven Wallace and ETSU alumnus Steven E. Jasinski.
Their work was recently published in the prestigious Journal of Paleontology.
This species, named Cynarctus wangi, was approximately the size of a coyote and lived along the eastern coast of North America around 12 million years ago. The omnivorous animal was identified by a tooth found by an amateur collector along a beach, and was from the middle Miocene Choptank Formation (Chesapeake Group) of the Calvert Cliffs on the coast of Maryland. The fossil was donated to the Smithsonian Institution.
Initially thinking the tooth was that of a panda, Smithsonian scientists sent photographs, and eventually the actual specimen, to Wallace for identification.
Wallace, a professor in the Department of Geosciences in ETSU’s College of Arts and Sciences, is well-known for his work on Miocene-era pandas at the Gray Fossil Site. He determined that the tooth did not belong to a panda, but was intrigued by the find and soon began to examine it in more detail with Jasinski, who, at that time, was a graduate student in paleontology working primarily with the turtle fossils found at the Gray Fossil Site.
Wallace and Jasinski compared the occlusal surface of the tooth, a right upper second molar, to the surfaces of known species. The distinct features of the tooth indicated a different diet than that of other similar species; instead of 70 percent meat, this species ate about one-third of its diet in meat, with the remainder coming from insects, fruit and berries. It was part of the Borophaginae subfamily of dogs.
Learning more about this particular species would be difficult. Because the isolated tooth was found as a “float” on the beach, locating more of that same animal’s remains would be next to impossible, according to Wallace.
“These beach exposures are constantly being worked by storms and normal erosion, so when you find something on the beach, it’s often very difficult to pinpoint exactly where it came from, and even then, you’re assuming that hopefully it was all there, but it might not have been there to begin with,” he said.
Wallace noted that the discovery of Cynarctus wangi was a “neat side project,” especially for a graduate student.
“One of the things we encourage our students to do is to broaden their scope,” Wallace said. “If their primary focus is on reptiles, for instance, we encourage them to work with other faculty on mammals. That’s why we worked together – his thesis was on turtles, so this mammal project gave him experience.
“We are very fortunate in our department to have multiple paleontologists with a variety of specialties, and that really exposes our students to a lot more.”
Jasinski, who graduated with his master’s degree in geosciences from ETSU in 2013, is now a doctoral student in the Department of Earth and Environmental Science in the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Arts and Sciences. He completed his bachelor’s degree in geobiology at Pennsylvania State University.