September 20, 2008

W.Va.’s ‘Official’ Sloth Fossil on Display Near Cheat Lake

By Rick Steelhammer

What's 12 feet long, has 6-inch claws and weighs a ton or more?

It's Megalonyx jeffersonii, and starting Saturday, a precise scientific replica of its skeletal remains will be on display at the West Virginia Geological Survey Museum near Morgantown.

In March, the Legislature designated the Megalonyx jeffersonii the official state fossil, since the first known specimen of the prehistoric species was found in a West Virginia cave more than 200 years ago.

Megalonyx jeffersonii is a long-extinct sloth that lumbered through the forests of what is now West Virginia more than 30,000 years ago, dining on whatever vegetarian delicacies it fancied.

In the mid-1790s, its bones were found in a Monroe County cave where saltpeter was being mined, and taken to the Monticello home of Thomas Jefferson, an amateur paleontologist who was then about to become vice president.

While Jefferson was serving as John Adams' second-in-command in 1797, he presented the bones and his conclusions about them to a meeting in Philadelphia of the American Philosophical Society, of which he was the newly elected president. Taking note of the fossilized creature's impressive claws, Jefferson hypothesized that the bones once formed the frame of some type of giant lion-like cat.

The 'Megalonyx' in the creature's name is Latin for 'giant claw,' and the jeffersonii, of course, refers to the individual who first described it.

Two years after Jefferson's presentation, Caspar Wistar, a physician and chairman of the anatomy department at the University of Pennsylvania, determined that the bones actually belonged to a previously unknown species of extinct giant ground sloth. It was Wistar who added the 'jeffersonii' to the creature's taxonomical name as a tribute to the man who soon would become America's third president.

It once was commonly thought the fossilized bones of the giant sloth collected by Jefferson were found in Organ Cave, but Ray Garton, curator of the West Virginia Geological Survey Museum, says land-records research performed by Smithsonian Institution paleontologist Fred Grady indicates that nearby Haynes Cave in Monroe County was the discovery site.

In fact, Grady found a shoulder bone from Megalonyx jeffersonii in Haynes Cave several years ago, which, after carbon dating, proved to have come from an animal that lived about 38,000 years ago.

Bones from an animal of the same genus have been found in Bowden Cave in Randolph County, while fossilized teeth from the giant ground sloth have been found in New Trout Cave in Pendleton County, Garton said.

The skeletal remains of the giant ground sloth presented to Jefferson in the 1790s are part of the Thomas Jefferson Fossil Collection in the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia.

Gregory McDonald, senior curator of natural history for the National Park Service's museum management program, used casts taken from the original West Virginia specimens collected by Jefferson to create the replica bones and skull in the new West Virginia Geological Survey exhibit.

Their first public display will take place Saturday and Sunday during the annual Rock, Gem and Fossil Show co-sponsored by the WVGS and Dave Phillips of Sunset Fossils.

The WVGS Museum also houses the only dinosaur skeleton in the state and numerous other fossil and mineral exhibits.

The museum is located off Exit 10 of Interstate 68, east of Morgantown. From Exit 10, turn left on W.Va. 857 and follow signs displayed on the old bridge crossing Cheat Lake. Following the weekend rock, gem and fossil show, museum hours will be 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday.

Reach Rick Steelhammer

at [email protected]

or 348-5169.

Originally published by Staff writer.

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