Family Fishing Trip
One day in late April, Ryleigh was on a family fishing trip to Lake Douglas in eastern Tennessee. She set up all her fishing equipment for a nice relaxing day trying to catch fish and enjoy the sunshine. Every 11-year-old kid stuck behind a desk staring at a chalkboard would probably be jealous of Ryleigh for being able to enjoy a Monday in April like that. The day ended up far more interesting than just catching a fish.
Douglas Lake is a pristine freshwater reservoir lake in eastern Tennessee. It was produced in 1942-1943 when the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) built the Douglas Dam to provide electricity for the inhabitants of the area. As a state, Tennessee suffered particularly harshly during the Great Depression, and so the TVA was formed in 1933 as part of President F. D. Roosevelt’s New Deal to improve conditions in Tennessee and the region. This dam is one of several built by the TVA that gave jobs to many.
The Great Smoky Mountains Area
Once the dam was built, the gorgeous Douglas Lake was formed. Some 30 miles from Knoxville, the lake is at the foothills of the Great Smokey Mountains, which is the segment of the Appalachian Mountains in that area. All around the lake are green hills and lush forests, making it an ideal tourist spot for boating, hiking, and swimming. In fact, some 1.7 million people visit Douglas Lake every year, but none of them likely found anything half the age of what Ryleigh found.
Down By The River
Taking a break from fishing, Ryleigh decided to take a walk along the lake shore. Fishing can get a bit dull, and if nothing’s biting you might as well take five and let a friend watch your rod like Ryleigh did. She enjoyed the green scenery as she walked for a short distance, before heading back to where her family was. As the path was beset by stones, she looked down to watch where her feet were so she wouldn’t fall. It was then she noticed something on a rock…
A Unique Individual
On the surface, Ryleigh Taylor is just like your average girl. Once you get to know her, however, she’s not much like them at all. It seems average kids just want to stare at their phones all day but are forced to sit in a classroom, learning about the outer world. Ryleigh prefers the great outdoors, spending much of the day outside, doing hands-on learning. It was her unique situation that led her to find something ancient and incredible.
The Advantages Of Home School
Ryleigh’s mother, Tammy, believes it is important for kids to learn about the world through their own eyes instead of being cooped up learning about the outside world in school. This gives Ryleigh invaluable, hands-on experience in this world. Take this story, for example. While other 11-year-old kids are supposed to be learning about the various prehistoric life forms that have inhabited this magnificent planet over its 4.6 billion years of existence in a classroom, but instead look at their cell phones from under the table, Ryleigh is touching and experiencing it first hand.
Not A Bug…
“I was looking down so I wouldn’t fall, and I thought it was a bug at first, so I went over to see what it was,” she later recollected. It wasn’t exactly a bug, but it wasn’t exactly a rock either. As she bent over to take a closer look, her eyes suddenly widened with excitement when she realized that what she was looking at was no ordinary find along the shore of an impounded lake that became a favorite fishing destination in Tennessee.
It was a fossil, or so she thought. She couldn’t believe it and immediately called over her parents to come and see what she had found. Her mom was skeptical at first, and Ryleigh had to call three or four times before they came over. “She knew it was a fossil, but she was trying to get us to come over and look at it, and I wouldn’t because I just knew it wasn’t,” Tammy recalled. “I just thought it was something on the rock.”
How Did It Get There?
Ryleigh picked up the fossil from where she found it by the stream. How exactly the fossil came to the shore of Lake Douglas, we will never know. Maybe it was swept downstream by the river forming it before being caught on the shores of the lake, or maybe it was uncovered during work on the dam. Still, it may have been exposed and brought my an animal or climatic conditions. In any case, when Tammy saw it, she knew it had had a long journey. But this as just the beginning…
Questions Are Raised
“Oh my gosh, that’s a fossil,” Tammy exclaimed once she realized what her daughter had found, she later recalled. They decided to take the fossil home with them to learn more about such a cool discovery, but she had so many questions. What type of plant or animal was it? And most importantly, how old was it? Because Ryleigh is homeschooled, she had no science teacher to ask. Naturally curious, Ryleigh was unable to stand not having an answer to these questions.
Calling In The Experts
Ryleigh asked her parents to reach out to someone who could help answer her questions. Tammy said that “even the next morning, she woke up begging us to call. So finally, I got on the phone.” She called up the University of Tennessee and ended up in contact with an assistant professor of paleobiology, Colin Sumrall. Sumrall later said he gets all sorts of calls from people who think they found a fossil all the time — at least once a week!
Despite being contacted frequently, “it’s actually fairly unusual for someone to find a fossil,” Sumrall said. A majority of them turn out to not to be fossils at all. When he saw what was found by Ryleigh, however, he knew exactly what it was. He told Tammy and she was absolutely blown away, relaying what she learned to her daughter. When Ryleigh heard from her mother exactly what it was, she began jumping up and down out of joy.
Not The First Fossil Found
Ryleigh isn’t the first kid to make a fossil find. In 2016, nine-year-old Jude Sparks was hiking in the New Mexico desert on a family trip when he stumbled on what he thought was a cow skull. He realized he would need to call in a professional to identify what he understood was a fossil, and not from any animal alive today. In the end, it was identified a Stegomastodon, an ancient relative of the elephant from some 1.2 million years ago!
Not The Second Fossil Found
In 2009, Utah high school student Kevin Terris found a fossilized dinosaur skull in his home state. They extricated bones that had been exposed to the elements, but it was only when they returned to the location to bring up the rest of the remains that they realized how significant a find it was. This was a Parasaurolophus, a rare duck-billed dinosaur. What made the discovery even more important was that it was a young specimen, teaching scientists much about the species’ development. This dinosaur lived some 75 million years ago!
A Rare And Ancient Discovery
The fossil that Ryleigh found, however, is much older. It was made by a trilobite some 475 million years ago! These creatures were marine anthropods, the animal group that includes insects, crustaceans, and spiders. They are invertebrates, meaning they have no spines; instead, they have an outer skeleton, called an exoskeleton. Their bodies are divided into segments. They are also characterized by having pairs of jointed legs. Sumrall said that the tribolite’s closest living relative is the horseshoe crab. But its age isn’t the only thing that made this fossil unique…
Older Than The Dinosaurs
The trilobite Ryleigh found is extremely old, older than the dinosaurs. Most other fossils aren’t so old. Sumrall said it was “about as old as a fossil can get. The oldest fossils are maybe a little older than that.” Almost all fossils, in fact, come after one single event: the Cambrian Explosion some 541 million years ago. In the fossil records, this is when almost all the phyla existing today in the animal kingdom diverged. The world went from having very few different multicellular organisms to teeming with life in a very short time.
Trilobites originally emerged from this cornucopia of diversity some 521 million years ago before gradually going extinct. They lived during the first part of the Paleozoic era and were so widespread that scientists describe the sea floor covered with crawling trilobites. The last species of this group of animals died out with the Permian extinction, about 300 million years ago. It is believed this happened because of a catastrophic event or series of events that caused 95% of life in the oceans to die out.
A Complete Fossil
In addition to being a very old specimen, what Ryleigh found is unique for another reason. It is an unusually complete specimen of a trilobite. Arthropods such as these extinct marine animals shed their exoskeletons in order to grow larger ones. Because these discarded exoskeletons are more fragile than those of vertebrates, or animals that have spines like mammals and birds, it is rare to find complete remains. “To find one where all the pieces are intact,” Sumrall said with excitement, “it’s actually a pretty lucky find.”
What Are The Chances?
Ryleigh’s mother couldn’t believe that is was her daughter, of all people, to have found it. What were the chances? As Sumrall said, people reach out to him every week about what they think are fossils, but the vast majority of times they’re not. Tammy expressed shock that such a rare find was sitting there on the banks of the reservoir, where anyone could find it. She was proud of her daughter for being so observant and spotting something so small among other stones that look just like it.
As for Ryleigh’s interest in science at the young age of 11, Sumrall said he thinks it’s fantastic. Hopefully, he said, finding this fossil will spark her interest in Paleontology even further. He admitted that the first fossil that he found was when he was 20 years old and in geology class. In fact, he said, even the greatest paleontologists who study ancient flora and fauna generally through fossil records, with years of experience under their belts, don’t often discover fossils like what Ryleigh found.
A Promising Future
“Maybe she’ll become a great paleontologist someday,” said Sumrall of Ryleigh. Indeed, such an incredible find seems to have sparked her interest. At the very least it’s a good place to start! Being a paleontologist is incredible work, and with what we know about Ryleigh it would fit her personality perfectly. As she loves the great outdoors and discovering new things about the world, what better profession than one spent digging up remains from ancient species in all sorts of locations?
What Will She Do With The Fossil?
Ryleigh said that she wants her discovery of the 475 million-year-old fossil to be a source of inspiration for other kids to go outside and explore like her. She realizes the good fortune and hopes she can help motivate others her age to make a change. “I can show kids that are my age that they don’t have to sit inside and play games,” she said. “They can actually go outside and find different things.”
Destined For Greatness
Although Ryleigh is the one who found the fossil and beams with pride with it in her hands, she wants to give it over to a museum so others can enjoy and learn from what she found. That really says a lot about Ryleigh, that she isn’t content with just keeping it for herself to enjoy on her bedside table and instead intends to turn it over. In the meantime, she says she will continue exploring outside and probably keep on looking for fossils as well.