Gazette honors Museum and Giant Sloth

The UI Museum of Natural History received some well-deserved recognition in the May 11, 2009 issue of the Cedar Rapids Gazette. In their Homers/Gomers column, under what’s going right, The Gazette called the Museum a “NATURAL TREASURE.”

“The University of Iowa’s Museum of Natural History may be one of the state’s best-kept secrets. The museum marked its 150th year last week, and its mission as a teaching and research tool is still intact. The 1,000,000-item collection compiled by UI faculty and students during research expeditions, includes a signature giant ground sloth display from a major excavation near Shenandoah.”

Good Going Museum! (For the record, Rusty and display were constructed  long before our Shenandoah discovery, but they are right about him/her being the same species.)  Sloth on.  Holmes.

Press release

This was the announcement the University released to the press this week.  We’re grateful to the NSF for their continuing support and to all the volunteers working on the project who make it possible.  Our sincere thanks. Holmes and Dave

UI sloth excavation project awarded $20,000 NSF grant

The University of Iowa’s Tarkio Valley Sloth Project has been awarded a $20,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to complete the excavation of the remains of three giant sloths and begin research of this unique discovery. The project is a joint effort of the UI Museum of Natural History, Department of Geoscience in the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and Office of the State Archaeologist, all teaming up with volunteers and students from across the Midwest.

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The mammoth in the room

Ground sloths were first discovered by science in 1789 when a giant skeleton was found on the banks of the Rio Luyan near Buenos Aires. Their existence didn’t surprise the local natives who had long held the animals were living underground like giant moles occasionally venturing too close to the surface and dying because of exposure to sunlight (Heuvelmans, 1995).


That’s the same legend Siberian natives evolved to explain the appearance of mammoth carcasses in the river banks after spring floods (Tolmachoff, 1929). I was reminded of that this week as I slopped through the muck inside a local museum looking for salvageable artifacts. Our first sloth was uncovered by the big 1993 flood, hopefully we don’t lose it to the Flood of 2008.

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If wishes were fishes we’d all catch sloths

I cited Swedish explorer Erland Nordenskiold in a post last week and forgot to mention the role he played in one of the last great natural history adventures of the 19th century.

In 1895 a former merchant sea captain named Hermann Eberhardt, farming on the shores of a inlet called Ultima Esperanza (“Last Hope”) in southern Chile discovered a giant cave on his property. Inside he found a large fresh-looking skin covered with long reddish-gray hair and embedded with bean-sized bones. Scientists identified it as that of an extinct Mylodon ground sloth. Further excavations uncovered bones with bits of dried tissue still attached, plus evidence of human habitation.

Today we know the bones and skin were preserved by the climate inside the cave, but to Professor Florentino Ameghino of the Buenos Aires museum, the skin appeared fresh. He remembered a story a friend had told him of seeing a strange animal while exploring in the area. Ameghino linked the story and the skin to a legend of a large nocturnal beast local natives called iemisch, with giant claws it used to dig burrows where it slept during the day. Ameghino concluded the iemischwas a living Mylodon ground sloth. His announcement created a world-wide stir. (Ameghino, 1898)

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New sloth species

Scientists recently finished analyzing a partial sloth skeleton found in the Cupisnique Desert of Peru in 1975 (Pujos et al., 2007). They estimate its age at 15-25,000 years old. The humerus (upper arm bone) matches one recovered by Swedish explorer, Erland Nordenskiold, in 1905 from a cave in the Andes called Casa del Diablo. They named the new species Diablotherium nordenskioldi and placed it in the Megalonychidae family, making it a close relative of our own Megalonyx. Nordenskiold suspected he had something special, and now it’s confirmed– Diablotherium was fully arboreal (tree-dwelling) and apparently as well-adapted to life off the ground as modern tree sloths. The discovery, the first species of this type ever found, underscores the tremendous adaptability of the ground sloths, especially the  Megalonychidae.

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