New species of shark fossil honors ETSU staffer

New species named in honor of ETSU staff member Sandy Swift

JOHNSON CITY (Posted July 5, 2012) – An article in the current issue of the international journal “Historical Biology” describes an extinct shark that swam the seas some 260 million years ago. Similar to the present-day great white shark, the predator was between 16 and 20 feet long, and it was found in the deep waters of the western coastline near what is today the Arizona and New Mexico state line.

Sandy Swift, a collections manager and technician at East Tennessee State University’s Department of Geosciences, did not discover the shark fossil, but the researchers who did chose to name the new genus and species in her honor.

The authors of the article – J.P. Hodnett, D.K. Elliott, T.J. Olson and J.H. Wittke – named the species Kaibabvenator swiftae in recognition of Swift’s service in the field of paleontology that began 25 years ago. After graduating from high school and taking a few college courses, Swift began volunteering at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science and was later promoted to assistant education collections manager. Since then, she has volunteered at museums and on expeditions across the United States from Arizona to Saltville, Va., and in China, Mexico, the Bahamas, and Australia, performing tasks such as digging, sifting through sediments, curating fossils and working with students and volunteers.

At ETSU, she is a technician for the Don Sundquist Center of Excellence in Paleontology and also oversees the vertebrate paleontology laboratory for the Department of Geosciences. She has volunteered her time to manage the department’s comparative collection that includes more than 15,000 skeletons of mammals, reptiles and amphibians.

“I want ETSU to have the best collection available, and I love working with the students as they see and learn about the thousands of truly strange skeletons in our laboratory,” Swift said. “Students of all ages and research backgrounds can utilize this collection, which features crocodiles, American mountain goats, salamanders, venomous snakes, Asian legless lizards and South American armadillos.”

While volunteering at the Gray Fossil Site, Swift was analyzing sediments “one teaspoon at a time” when she noticed what appeared to be tiny bones that seemed unusual compared to the other fossils found at the site. Turns out, those tiny bones belonged to a venomous lizard called Heloderma – a discovery which revealed for the first time that this species once roamed southeastern North America some 5-7 million ago. Today, the lizards are only found in the hot deserts of Arizona and in the tropical forests of western Mexico down into Central America.

Dr. Blaine Schubert, director of the Center of Excellence in Paleontology and an ETSU faculty member, says the volunteer support from Swift is one reason the ETSU paleontology program is so strong.

“Our extensive collection requires a tremendous amount of ongoing maintenance in order for it to continue to grow and to be available to students, researchers, professors and visitors. Sandy makes that happen, and we are delighted that the field of paleontology now has this permanent recognition of her efforts.”

Source: East Tennessee State University


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