The Dinosaurs and Prehistoric Animals of Tennessee

For much of the Paleozoic and Mesozoic Eras—until about 75 million years ago—the area of North America destined to become Tennessee was well-stocked with invertebrate life, including mollusks, corals, and starfish. This state is much less well known for its dinosaurs—only a few scattered remains dating to the late Cretaceous period—but it experienced a rebound just before the modern era, when megafauna mammals were thick on the ground. Here are the most notable dinosaurs and prehistoric animals ever to live in the Volunteer State.

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Duck-Billed Dinosaurs

Illustration of Hadrosaurus
Hadrosaur. DEA PICTURE LIBRARY / Getty Images

The sparse dinosaur fossils discovered in Tennessee date to about 75 million years ago, just ten million years before the K/T Extinction Event. While these bones are too fragmentary and incomplete to be assigned to a specific genus, they almost certainly belonged to a hadrosaur (duck-billed dinosaur) closely related to Edmontosaurus. Of course, wherever there were hadrosaurs, there were certainly tyrannosaurs and raptors as well, but these haven't been preserved in Tennessee's sediments.

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Believe it or not, camels originally evolved in North America, from whence they spread to Cenozoic Eurasia (today, the only extant camels are found in the Middle East and central Asia) before going extinct in the land of their birth at the cusp of the modern era. The most notable prehistoric camel of Tennessee was Camelops, a seven-foot-tall megafauna mammal that roamed this state during the Pleistocene epoch, from about two million to 12,000 years ago.

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Various Miocene and Pliocene Animals

Bronze Skull of saber toothed cat on Bench
Joe_Potato / Getty Images

Washington County in Tennessee is the home of the Gray Fossil Site, which bears the remains of an entire ecosystem dating to the late Miocene and early Pliocene epochs (from about seven million to five million years ago). The mammals identified from this site include saber-toothed cats, prehistoric elephants, ancestral rhinos, and even a genus of panda bear; and that's not even to mention the profusion of bats, alligators, turtles, fish, and amphibians.

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Mylodon model
roccomontoya / Getty Images

A bewildering number of giant sloths roamed North America during the Pleistocene epoch. The state of Tennessee is best known for Mylodon, also known as Paramylodon, a close relative of the Giant Ground Sloth first described in the late 18th century by Thomas Jefferson. Like the other megafauna mammals of Pleistocene Tennessee, Mylodon was almost comically gigantic, about 10 feet tall and 2,000 pounds (and believe it or not, it was still smaller than other ancestral sloths of its day, such as Megatherium).

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Various Marine Invertebrates

Trilobyte fossil display
Cristina Arias / Getty Images

Like many dinosaur-poor states near the east coast, Tennessee is unusually rich in the fossils of much less impressive animals—the crinoids, brachiopods, trilobites, corals and other small marine creatures that populated the shallow seas and lakes of North America over 300 million years ago, during the Devonian, Silurian and Carboniferous periods. These may not be impressive to look at in a museum, but they provide an incomparable perspective on the evolution of life during the Paleozoic Era.

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Strauss, Bob. "The Dinosaurs and Prehistoric Animals of Tennessee." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Strauss, Bob. (2021, February 16). The Dinosaurs and Prehistoric Animals of Tennessee. Retrieved from Strauss, Bob. "The Dinosaurs and Prehistoric Animals of Tennessee." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 22, 2023).