Adamsville site provides glimpse into Tennessee’s ancient history, dinosaurs

TML Communications Specialist

A unique area of West Tennessee offers visitors and researchers alike a chance to dig for dinosaurs and explore the state’s ancient past.

Located on 240 acres in Adamsville, UT Martin’s Coon Creek Science Center offers a rare glimpse into what Tennessee was like millions of years in the past. Dr. Michael Gibson, director of the UT Martin Coon Creek Science Center, said the history of the area begins during a time when West Tennessee was under an ancient ocean.

“The geological history of the site goes back 72 million years,” he said. “At that time, earth was going through a really huge global warming event. The sea level was hundreds of feet higher than it is today, high enough the Gulf of Mexico flooded the interior of North America. You could have swam from Biloxi all the way to the Arctic Ocean without getting out of the water. Our little area of West Tennessee was an embayment off to the side of this high sea level. This is the Cretaceous period, which is when there were dinosaurs. West Tennessee was actually an ocean, so we had everything that was in the ocean during that period. Middle and East Tennessee probably did have dinosaurs, but they weren’t as well preserved except what was carried out to sea and dumped in the ocean where it was preserved in our Coon Creek formation.”

While geological changes that happened between the Cretaceous period and now destroyed evidence of dinosaurs in other areas, Gibson said it worked to preserve the evidence in the Coon Creek formation accessible at the site. As a result, fossils at the site are basically at their original state, offering a unique view into history.

This layer of geology, known as the Coon Creek formation, is visible from Kentucky down to Mississippi. While not every inch of formation has fossils, the Coon Creek Science Center is located on one of the eight areas of the formation where there is a known abundance of fossils. The center is the best preserved of those eight known areas.

However, it wasn’t until some 150 years ago that this wealth of prehistory first came to light. When the first settlers of European descent came into West Tennessee in the 1800s, they began to notice something was different about the area. In 1867, the Weeks family set up a farm on what is now the Coon Creek Science Center property.

“Dave Weeks found if he ground up the sea shell fossils and fed them to his chickens they produced better eggs because of the calcium in the shells,” Gibson said. “The site then became recognized not because of the fossils but because it was a resource for farmers. Another Tennessean from Trenton who was getting his geology degree at Vanderbilt became aware of the site, and it became his dissertation at Johns Hopkins. After that, the site became famous among scientists around the world because of it's unique character. Since then, the site has been a mecca for people to come from all over the world to study these organisms and that time period.”

The Weeks family sold the property in the 1950s to A.Z. Smith and his family. The Smith family recognized the scientific significance of the site and allowed researchers into the site until the 1980s. The Smith family then decided to return to Memphis and sold the site to the Pink Palace Museum in Memphis.

The Pink Palace built most of the facilities now on the site, including a full science camp. This past April, the Pink Palace Museum turned the site over to UT Martin to run on a long-term lease. UT Martin has been conducting research for the Pink Palace on the site since the 1990s and so it was a natural fit.

Gibson said fossils on the site range from marine shells and vertebrates to marine life like sharks and crabs we would recognize today as well as the remains of what may look like sea monsters.

“We have found several mosasaurus at the site, one of which is on display at the Pink Palace Museum,” he said. “We have what is probably going to end up being a plesiosaurus, which is what everyone thinks of when they think of the Loch Ness Monster. We have also found one flying reptile – a pterosaur – which we’ve found in the Coon Creek material. We have more than 400 species of marine organisms like clams, oysters, snails, and various types of cephalopods. Even the plankton that was in the water and sediment is preserved, so we have the entire food chain up and down.”

Many of the fossils found on the site help researchers determine the origins of many species commonly found in the modern ocean.

“There are many groups we find that are still living,” he said. “The actual species may be extinct, but you could find other types of that group if you were beach walking the Gulf. If you were walking on the beach in the Cretaceous period, you would recognize clams, snails, crabs, lobsters, and shrimp. We have other types that are completely extinct. A lot of these are the same creatures that would have gone extinct during the same extinction event as the dinosaurs, for example your large swimming reptiles like the plesiosaur or mosasaurus. We can then look at those that survived those extinction events and figure out why they survived when others did not.”

Occasionally, artifacts from other periods of history also turn up.

“We find signs of Native American occupation and activity, early farming, and later human habitation on the site,” Gibson said. “We have an archaeological history there as well as a paleontological history. Coon Creek is actually a modern creek that is cutting down into an old deposit that is the Coon Creek formation. This little creek has exposed this formation for us to see, and we now have evidence of three earlier versions of this creek that ran through this area at different times.”

Gibson said the site teaches important lessons about how sea level change can impact the planet.

“This site is 400-feet-above sea level, but you dig out your own marine fossils, which indicates this area had to be a sea floor sometime in the past,” he said. “At the very minimum, it demonstrates the reality of sea level change and not just a little sea level change but sea level change on a global magnitude. This site shows just one time we can demonstrate that type of change in Tennessee. Other nearby areas like Parsons have evidence of other ocean flooding events at different times. There are at least six global rises and drops of sea levels on a huge scale in Tennessee alone that can be traced worldwide.”

The site offers visitors a chance to dig their own fossils as well.

“Visitors to the site get to dig – and keep – their own finds from the formation,” Gibson said. “One of the things we do with the site is called paleotourism where you learn about the site and what it has to offer. We are also doing active research on the site. People can come in to volunteer to help us. We teach them how to do dig work, how to clean the fossils, and prepare them.”

Beyond paleontology, plenty of other research also goes on at Coon Creek.

“We also do modern forest ecology, and we have a couple of ponds on the site that we use to help us study how ecology effects the modern farmer,” Gibson said. “We do a lot of things on the site, including astronomy. We have a science lab on site. This is really a STEAM center where all sciences can be taught. We do engineering, math, arts, and all things of that nature on the site. The central theme here is that we want everyone to have an outdoor field setting. We want them to experience this in the real world.”

The Coon Creek Science Center takes two and four-hour reservations for weekday group tours and activities, such as those for scout groups, school groups, birthday parties, and others. Gibson said the center will also be opening up on certain weekends to host community days where the general public can make reservations to visit the site.

Those who wish to make reservations to visit the center can call the UT Martin Selmer Campus at 731-646-1636 for more information.