11-Year-Old Girl Finds 475-Million-Year-Old Fossil in the Smoky Mountains

A trilobite fossil.
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You never know what you’re going to find when you visit the Smoky Mountains! 11-year-old Ryleigh Taylor was strolling along the shore of Douglas Lake a few weeks ago when she made the discovery of a lifetime: a rare fossil that is over 475 million years old. Ryleigh’s amazing find has already been confirmed by the University of Tennessee and written about in Newsweek and Popular Mechanics. Local news station WATE caught up with Ryleigh to learn how she came across this spectacular piece of history:

Discovering the Fossil

When Ryleigh was walking along the banks of Douglas Lake, she spotted what appeared to be a rock with unusual markings. The stone had a deep imprint that made it appear as though something was embedded within the rock. Ryleigh suspected that the rock was actually a fossil and shared her discovery with her family.

To determine what exactly Ryleigh had uncovered, the Taylors reached out to Colin Sumrall, an associate professor of paleobiology at the University of Tennessee. Professor Sumrall confirmed Ryleigh’s suspicion: the rock was, in fact, a fossil, and a rare one at that.

A Piece of the Paleozoic Era

Ryleigh had discovered a trilobite, an extinct bug-like marine animal that lived in the water around the Smoky Mountains during the Paleozoic era. Trilobites were one of the earliest known arthropods, animals that wear their skeletons on the outside, have segmented bodies, and don’t possess backbones. According to Professor Sumrall, the trilobite Ryleigh found is most closely related to the modern horseshoe crab.

Trilobites inhabited the planet for 270 million years before being wiped out in a mass extinction around 252 million years ago. In comparison, modern humans have only existed for roughly 300,000 years!

An illustration of a trilobite.A Rare Find

Much like the insects and crabs of today, trilobites would shed their exoskeleton as they grew. Professor Sumrall believes that the fossil Ryleigh uncovered is a trilobite exoskeleton. Finding an intact trilobite fossil is unusual because their exoskeletons would usually crumble into hundreds of pieces after being shed.

At 475 million years old, Ryleigh’s fossil is “about as old as you can get,” says Professor Sumrall. The oldest fossils discovered by humans are around 540 million years old.

Donating the Fossil to a Museum

Although Ryleigh found the fossil on her own, she wants to share her discovery with the masses. She would like the trilobite fossil to be displayed in a public museum for everyone to see. Ryleigh told WATE that she hopes her discovery inspires other children to explore the great outdoors, “I can show kids that are my age that they don’t have to sit inside and play games. They can actually go outside and find different things.”

Professor Sumrall sees a bright future for Ryleigh, telling reporter Amanda Ketchledge, “To find something like that, it could spark this youngster into a whole career. Maybe she’ll become a great paleontologist one day.”

Douglas Lake TNMore to See at Douglas Lake

While we can’t promise that you’ll find any fossils, there is plenty of fun to be had at Douglas Lake in the Smoky Mountains! Check out our blog about the top 6 things to do when you visit Douglas Lake.

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