Sloth Talk

This image shows a portion of the Museum on the third floor of Science Hall which was located on the old campus at Seminary Square. Only about eight cases of minerals and fossils, comprising about 1000 specimens (including the Megalonyx seen here) were saved after the fire that destroyed this building on July 12, 1883. The bones of the Megalonyx were discovered on the banks of the Ohio River below Henderson, Kentucky. This original photographic print can be found in a book of photographs prepared and photographed by T.A. Wylie and S. B. Wylie for the 1876 Exposition at Philadelphia.

Pictured above is the wonderfully named Megalonyx jeffersonii – a giant sloth discovered and collected in the 19th century by Richard and David Dale Owen, significant contributors to both IU’s and the state of Indiana’s history of natural science studies. Megalonyx formed part of what was known as the “Owen Cabinet,” a collection of approximately 85,000 fossils and minerals assembled by the aforementioned Owens as well as Robert Owen, Alexander Maclure and William Maclure.

The partial skeleton of the Megalonyx jeffersonii, an extinct species of giant sloth named after Thomas Jefferson, was discovered in Henderson, Kentucky. Researchers of the time debated whether the more than 60 bones originated from the same animal, and those responsible for mounting the specimen decided to leave space for the missing bones rather than create approximate molds from comparable species skeletons. A receipt from its transportation to Indiana University reveals that the skeleton cost $130 for transport, as well as $70 for its case and $1.84 for freight services. Though the specimen was saved from Indiana University’s devastating 1883 fire that destroyed most of the Owen Cabinet, its location becomes murky in the early 20th century.

Though considered the “most complete skeleton ever recovered of this relatively poorly represented species,” a search for the bones by university anthropologists in the 1980s turned up evidence that much of it was probably disposed of shortly after the end of World War II along with a number of other specimens. They reached out to a number of alumni from the 1940s to ask if they had recollections of the fossil. One reported that after 1945, “there apparently was a great ‘housecleaning’ of poorly attributed specimens at that time. There are reports that a dump truck was backed up to a second story window of Owen Hall and students tossed unwanted specimens out the window.” Some correspondents reported participating in the great purge themselves, joking about the dogs on campus running off with prehistoric bones. A smaller school of thought suggests that a second fire may have occurred in 1947, thus destroying all but 5 of the bones, but given the lack of evidence for this theory – as well as my newfound expertise on fires at Indiana University – the department dumpster seems far more plausible.

In 1995, an Archives staff member received an email that solved at least part of the long-time mystery of the location of the Megalonyx jeffersonii: four of its bones had been located at the Indiana State Museum. But what of the previously mentioned 5th bone? And the remaining fossil?

Thus, the mystery continues. If you have any information regarding the disappearance of the Megalonyx jeffersonii, do let us know!