Rare giant sloth bones found in Norwalk museum attic

NORWALK Important scientific discoveries aren't usually made in attics -- where boxes of Christmas l
Cory Frolik
May 24, 2010



Important scientific discoveries aren't usually made in attics -- where boxes of Christmas lights and old high school yearbooks collect dust.

But about three years ago, amateur paleontologist Matt Burr found a box in the attic of the Firelands Historical Society Museum with the remains of a rare giant ground sloth.

The bones belong to the second-largest Ice Age sloth (Megalonyx jeffersonii) of its kind ever recorded, and cuts along the femur bone are the first evidence prehistoric Indians hunted the species, said Brian Redmond, Cleveland Museum of Natural History's curator of archaeology.

"As far as we know, no one else has found direct evidence of people hunting these particular animals," Redmond said. "This is the first time we have documented evidence of Paleoindians hunting this particular species."

Both the sloth bones and their story -- what is known of it -- will be shared with the public at 7 p.m. June 3 at the Ernsthausen Performing Arts Center in Norwalk. Redmond will host a talk about the bones, their significance and scientific analysis.

He plans on writing a paper for a scientific journal on the subject in the next year or so.

For some reason, remains of this species of sloth are exceedingly rare.

Redmond said there are only the semi-skeletons of about four of them in existence, making the attic discovery especially remarkable.

It's hard to imagine today, but this region used to be home to a variety of Ice Age animals, including mammoths and mastodons.

The Jefferson's ground sloth -- named after Thomas Jefferson -- also roamed the countryside for about 30,000 to 40,000 years, experts said.

The large, lumbering herbivores had few natural enemies and spent much of their time and energy munching on plants.

Unlike their modern-day counterparts, Ice Age sloths did not climb trees. Weighing about a ton and reaching lengths of 7 to 8 feet, the creatures were too big to scale anything effectively, experts said.

Firelands Museum lent the bones to the Cleveland Museum for about two years for study.

Consulting with sloth experts across the country -- including Greg McDonald, senior curator of natural history for the National Park Service's Park Museum Management Program -- Redmond said the analysis produced some interesting revelations.

Carbon dating shows the bones of the Firelands sloth date back about 11,740 years. Placing the bones under the microscope, researchers also determined the 52 cut marks were made by stone tools.

This constitutes the first evidence found suggesting prehistoric humans hunted the species. It also suggests there were humans in Huron County 740 years earlier than previously thought, said Mary Stewart, member of the Firelands Historical Society.

"The date of 11,000 years (B.C.) was when they thought the first humans appeared in this area," Stewart said.

Like all Ice Age creatures, the giant ground sloth mysteriously disappeared from the fossil record about 11,000 years ago, Redmond said.

It's unclear whether environmental factors or human hunters wiped them out.

But the mysteries don't end there.

Questions also surround how these particular bones wound up in the possession of the Firelands Historical Society.

Historical documents suggest the bones were found in a bog just off Niver Road in Willard -- presumably named after the family of Roe Niver, a University of Illinois student. It was Niver who shared the fossil discovery with geologist Oliver Hay in 1915.

Hay mentions the bones in a 1915 article and then again in a 1923 article.

But after that, nothing -- no mention of the fossils again until Burr discovered them one day in the attic.

Somehow the bones ended up in a box stowed at the historical society museum, mislabeled as bones belonging to a mammoth.

Stewart said it's exciting such an important archaeological find occurred in Huron County.

She said the talk will appeal to both families as well as students of animal and human history because prehistoric sloths became quite popular following the release of the animated "Ice Age" films.

For information, call Firelands Historical Society president Pat Mak at 419-668-7481.