Gators, rhinos, and global warming


While passing through northeastern Tennessee, I noticed that, in Gray, Tenn., a fairly new fossil museum had been constructed. Curious, since it wasn’t there when I lived in the area, I stopped in.

It was there that I discovered that, several years ago when Interstate 26 was being constructed, workers hit an usually dark area of dirt that, upon closer examination, appeared to contain bones. Work was halted and eventually re-routed around what turned out to be an ancient fossil pit.

Gray, Tenn., only a few miles from where I grew up, is in the Appalachian Mountain chain. Davy Crockett was born less than 40 miles from where Gray now stands and Daniel Boone trekked through these hills and both he and Crockett had a high school named after them. Just a few miles to the south, one enters the Smoky Mountain National Park.

I wasn’t surprised to see fossil remains and reconstructions of saber-tooth tigers. I was surprised, however, to discover that at least five rhinoceros skeletons and several alligator fossils were unearthed.

Big cats in the Tennessee hills I can see, but rhinos and gators? There were other remains, including two brand new but extinct species of mammals. Experts from East Tennessee State University, my undergrad alma mater, say that the dig is so large that it may take 100 years to excavate everything there. Who knows what remains to be discovered?

But back to the alligators and rhinos. It is glaringly obvious that the ancient east Tennessee climate was far warmer than it is today. In our own area near Atlanta, Ga., some 350 miles south of Gray, there is an occasional alligator discovered in some lake (likely released by a person who thought it would be cool to own a baby gator as a pet but the experiment got out of hand) but the cold temperatures of winter normally doom such an animal.

All of which got me to thinking about global warming. Personally, I don’t believe in global warming — at least the man-made kind touted by the global warming crowd.

I do, however, believe in climate change: natural, normal rhythms of the earth and weather (perhaps with the aid of solar flares) that produce changes in the climate and environment.

It is now apparent that my home area was once tropical and overrun with critters much bigger than possums, skunks, and raccoons. It was full of animals that are more typical of Florida, the Amazon, or Africa.

I have been in weather that was 40 degrees below zero. Once, on a visit to Illinois, I was frozen into submission by winds that brought the February temperature down to minus 22 degrees.

I would have been grateful for global warming. I like warm weather. Crops like warm weather. Bees like warm weather. So did the alligators and rhinos of Gray, Tenn.

The simple truth is that the earth has been far, far warmer than it is today and the planet seems to have survived and gotten along just fine. In fact, if the earth had remained warm, the extinct Tennessee rhinos, which were a different species from those found in other parts of the world, might just have survived.

And, if the globe had stayed warmer, “Swamp People” could have been filmed in my beloved Tennessee instead of in Louisiana where mosquitoes are nearly as large as the gators.

On the other hand, if the cold hadn’t come to Tennessee, Davy Crockett might not have migrated to a warmer west and Texas might have remained a northern province of Mexico.

I suppose that change is inevitable. But I sure would have loved to have seen a rhino as a kid. And gone swimming in Boone Lake in February.

[David Epps is the pastor of the Cathedral of Christ the King, 4881 Hwy. 34 E., Sharpsburg, GA 30277. Services are held Sundays at 8:30 and 10 a.m. ( He is the bishop of the Mid-South Diocese ( and is the associate endorser for U. S. military chaplains for his denomination. He may be contacted at]