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Does the ground sloth, Mylodon darwinii,

still survive in South America?


Dr Ross Barnett (UK) and Simon Sylvester (UK)

n Zoology, nothing is more


exciting than the rediscovery of
an animal previously thought
long extinct. The coelacanth
(Latimera chalumnae) and the
ivory-bill woodpecker (Campephilus
principalis) are two famous recent
examples of Lazarus taxa. Wellpublicised rediscoveries like these
promote the idea that refugia
containing the last survivors of
prehistoric species are still to be
found.
One group that has been searched
for more optimistically than many
others is the South American ground
sloth. In particular, one species,
Mylodon darwinii has been the
subject of much speculation. Could
it still survive today? And why have
people clung on to the possibility of
continued survival of this species
of ancient animal more than any
other, to the extent that expeditions
are still being sent to search for the
beast (Oren, 2001)?

A last gasp at Last Hope


The history of this optimism can, I
think, be traced to an exceptional
series of events that took place in

Patagonia over a century ago. These


were widely reported in the global
presses, but have not received the
follow up attention they deserve.
The drama began in 1895, at the
Chilean site of Ultima Esperanza
(Last Hope), when a German
landowner, known as Eberhardt,
discovered a strange, shaggy, red
hide in an enormous cave on his
property (Bell, 2002). He and some
labourers had stumbled upon the
skin while exploring the cavern,
which had also contained some
human bones. These were removed
from the cave and burned in a
bonfire on the shore, to the horror
of later archaeologists (Lnnberg,
1896). The large, furry hide was
hung upon a tree as a curiosity,
and attracted the attention of local
folklorists who confidently asserted
it to be from a cow that had grown
pebbles in its skin, or of an unknown
sea creature (Moreno & Woodward,
1899).
It was later chanced upon by Swedish
explorers who were passing through
on a trip to Tierra del Fuego in 1896
(Lnnberg, 1896). The expedition
was led by the famous explorer

Dr Otto Nordenskjold. Intrigued by


the stones visible in the skin, they
chopped off a section and took it
home for study by the learned men
of Uppsala (Lnnberg, 1896). At
around the same time, word of this
enigmatic cowhide was received
by Dr Francisco Moreno of the
La Plata museum, who ventured
out to examine it for himself. He
confirmed that it must belong to the
ground sloth Mylodon or a closely
related genus due to the unique
dermal ossicles (pebbles) that are
only possessed by this group of
South American mammals (Moreno
& Woodward, 1899). The Swedish
expedition returned again in 1899
(Lnnberg, 1900), led by Erland
Nordenskjold, Ottos cousin, and
conducted some excavations in the
cave, only to discover another piece
of skin (probably from the extinct
horse Hippidion) as well as many
other skeletal remains buried in the
floor of the cave, under a layer of
well-preserved ground sloth dung.
Altogether, the Eberhardt cave has
produced the remains of ground
sloth, human, sabre-toothed cat,
extinct giant bear, jaguar, puma,

View of the entrance of Eberhardt cave (now known as Cueva del Milodon/Mylodon cave). Copyright Wikipedia, Remi Jouan.

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fox, horse, llama, litoptern (a


unique South American herbivore)
and giant rat. However, of course,
the most interesting puzzle was the
skin. It looked fresh, it had hair on
it, and it had clearly been skinned
from a dead animal by the hand
of man and even contained dried
blood on its margins. It must have
come from a recently killed animal
- even the director of the Natural
History Museum, Prof R Lankester,
was reported to have said it is
quite possible that he still exists
in some of the mountainous regions
of Patagonia (Prichard, 1902).

It lives (maybe)!
Into this jumble of supposition,
further details suddenly appeared.
Florentino Ameghino, also of the La
Plata museum, received word from
the explorer, Ramon Lista, that he
had chanced upon a large, hairy
red beast in the pampas (Pritchard,
1902). Ameghino was sure that
this must be a living ground sloth
and promptly named it Listas new
Mylodon (Neomylodon listai).
The native inhabitants of Patagonia,
the Tehuelche, were interrogated
for information on anything that
might resemble a living ground
sloth. Prof Ameghino identified
the amphibious Iemisch of
Tehuelche legend as identical to his
Neomylodon and reported that the
creature was recently encountered
by several indigenous people he
knew (Heuvelmans, 1958). One even
claimed to have shot and killed an
Iemisch while on his way to Santa
Cruz! Encouraged by such stories,
the Daily Express sent the reporter
H H Prichard to the tip of South
America to report on whether any
antediluvian monsters could still be
found there (Prichard, 1902).
Yet, amid all the excitement,
there were some sceptical voices.
Dr Moreno, the first scientist to
properly examine the skin, knew
that the dry, cold conditions found
in caves could act as a wonderful
preservative. He drew attention to
the mummified remains of extinct
Moa found in New Zealand and the
curious natural human mummies
that he had personally encountered
in Patagonia (Moreno & Woodward,
1899). Dr Moreno was also well
acquainted with the stories of the
Tehuelche and, although he had
never encountered any tales of the

Evolution of the sloth


The two surviving genera of sloth are colloquially known as the two-toed
(Choloepus sp.) and three-toed sloth (Bradypus sp.). These small (koalasized) creatures spend their lives in the trees, eating leaves and moving
so slowly that algae can grow in their fur, giving them a greenish sheen.
Together with armadillos and anteaters, they form a uniquely South
American group: the Xenarthra. United by a common physiology, including
specialised vertebrae and lack of enamel on their teeth, the Xenarthra are
thought to be the most divergent of placental mammals (Naish, 2005).
Within Xenarthra, the sloth group was spectacularly successful, evolving
in isolation on island South America until it collided with North America,
about 3mya, allowing the sloths to escape their homeland and spread as
far north as Alaska.
The evolution of the sloth family lead in many different directions and
produced some incredible species. The giant ground sloth, Megatherium
americanum, reached a length of 6m and was probably the largest
mammal to roam the Americas (Naish, 2005). The Shasta ground sloth,
Nothrotherium shastense, was the size of a large bear and has been
found partially mummified in dry caves in Nevada (Lull, 1930). Even the
Caribbean islands developed their own insular sloth fauna, which may
have survived until as recently as 500 years ago (Naish, 2005; Lull, 1930).
Sloth palaeontology has a rich history in the USA, with no less a luminary
than Thomas Jefferson credited with the first discovery of a ground sloth
on American soil in 1799 (Jefferson, 1799). This important discovery of a
great-claw, or Megalonyx, provided early evidence that the Americas had
possessed a fauna to rival the mammoths of the old-world. The ground
sloth species, Megalonyx jeffersoni, is named in honour of Jeffersons
discovery.
In the 200 years since, we have gained a very complete knowledge of
ground sloth biology and diversity. The remains of hide and nails from
Mylodon and Nothrotherium give us an idea of what the soft tissue of
these giants looked like, including the incredible dermal ossicles - pieces
of bone within the skin that would have made it as tough and flexible as
chainmail. The enormous claws of many species would have also made for
a formidable defence against would-be attackers. We know a great deal
about sloth locomotion thanks to well-preserved remains of foot bones
from some species. As unlikely as it sounds, these giant beasts actually
walked on the outside of the foot, with all toes off the ground, a bizarre
form of locomotion that has been found preserved in fossil footprints at
sites in Mexico and Nevada (Stock, 1920). We even have a good idea of what
the extinct sloths ate, thanks to pioneering work that extracted ancient
DNA from preserved sloth coprolites in Nevada and Argentina, indicating
a varied diet that included mustard, capers, yucca and agave (Poinar,
1998). We have even succeeded in teasing apart the family relationships
of the sloth dynasty using DNA extracted from ground sloth remains. The
very first extinct sloth species to be investigated this way was our friend,
Mylodon darwinii, using material from Eberhardt cave, Ultima Esperanza
(Hss et al, 1996).
References
Naish, D. Sloths. Geology Today 21, 232-238 (2005).
Lull, R. S. The ground sloth Nothrotherium. American Journal of Science 20 (1930).
Steadman, D. W. & al, e. Asynchronous extinction of late Quaternary sloths on continents
and islands. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the U.S.A. 102, 1176311768 (2005).
Jefferson, T. A memoir on the discovery of certain bones of a quadruped of the clawed
kind in western parts of Virginia. Transactions of the American Philosophical Society
4, 246-260 (1799).
Stock, C. S. Origin of the supposed human footprints of Carson City, Nevada. Science
51, 514 (1920).
Poinar, H. N. et al. Molecular coproscopy: Dung and diet of the extinct ground sloth
Nothrotheriops shastensis. Science 281, 402-406 (1998).
Hss, M., Dilling, A., Currant, A. & Pbo, S. Molecular Phylogeny of the extinct ground
sloth Mylodon darwinii. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the U.S.A. 93,
181-185 (1996).

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Naming the Sloth


The ground sloth from Ultima Esperanza has had a chequered taxonomic
history. The first fossils of sloths from southern South America were picked up
in Punta Alta by a certain C Darwin while on The Beagle. The redoubtable Prof
Owen, of the Natural History Museum in London, named the species Mylodon
darwinii (Darwins mill-tooth) in Darwins honour. However, in the early,
heady days of vertebrate palaeontology, many new species names were erected
based on small differences in morphology. The sloth from Eberhardt cave was
jostled from genus to genus over the years. It has been variously known as:
Neomylodon listai 1896 (Lnnberg, 1896).
Glossotherium darwinii 1899 (Moreno, 1899).
Grypotherium domesticum 1899 (Roth, 1899).
Grypotherium listai 1900 (Woodward, 1900).
Grypotherium darwinii domesticum 1904 (Roth, 1904).
Neomylodon listai 1930 (Lull, 1930).
It has been generally agreed that all these species names are superfluous
and that the Patagonian ground sloth from Ultima Esperanza is simply
Mylodon darwinii (Salmi, 1955).
However misguided previous palaeontologists have been, it is through
an even bigger taxonomic mix up that many people have come to know
the sloth of Ultima Esperanza. Bruce Chatwin, in his book In Patagonia,
describes how his cousin, Charlie, had brought back some Brontosaurus
skin from his travels in South America. The Brontosaurus skin, which
had fired the imagination of young Bruce, was from Mylodon.
References
Lnnberg, E. in Svenska Expeditionen Magellanslnderna 149-170 (1896).
Moreno, F. P. Note on the discovery of Miolania and of Glossotherium (Neomylodon) in
Patagonia. Nature 60, 396-398 (1899).
Roth, S. Descripcin de los restos encontrados en la caverna de ltima Esperanza. Revista
del Museo de La Plata 9, 421-453 (1899).
Woodward, A. S. On some Remains of Grypotherium (Neomylodon) listai and associated
Mammals from a Cavern near Consuelo Cove, Last Hope Inlet, Patagonia. Proceedings of
the Zoological Society of London 5, 64-79 (1900).
Roth, S. Nuevos restos de mamferos de la caverna Eberhardt en ltima Esperanza. Revista
del Museo de La Plata 11, 37-53 (1904).
Lull, R. S. Note on coprolite of Neomylodon. American Journal of Science 20, 356 (1930).
Salmi, M. Additional information on the findings in the Mylodon Cave at Ultima Esperanza.
Acta Geographica 14, 313-333 (1955).

Mylodon darwini fur and skin at the Museum fr Naturkunde, Berlin. Copyright Wikipedia, FunkMonk.

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Iemisch, he did recognise tales


of an ugly, hairy animal known
as Ellengassen. He was assured
by his Tehuelche sources that
they knew of nothing that could
account for the Eberhardt skin or
Listas mysterious animal (Moreno
& Woodward, 1899). Lista himself
suggested that the creature he saw
was something like an old world
pangolin, too small to be a ground
sloth. H H Prichard returned from
his sloth-hunting trip a sceptic,
having discovered: no trace
whatever either by hearsay or from
the evidence of our own experience
to warrant the supposition that it
continues to exist to the present
day (Prichard, 1902). And that is
pretty much where the story was
left. Prichard returned to Britain in
1901, but the idea of living ground
sloths in Patagonia remained fixed
in the publics imagination.

Dating a ground sloth


So, what new evidence has been
collected over the past century
pertaining to ground sloth survival
in South America? Mylodon
darwinii has been one of the most
investigated sloth taxa and we now
have a good appreciation of its
biology. From analysis of the dung
found in Eberhardt cave, we know
that it lived on grasses, herbs and
sedges in an open treeless steppe,
due to the absence of tree pollen
in the dung (Moor 1978). The ideal
habitat for Mylodon is definitely
not jungle or forest, as some slothhunters have assumed. It was
a creature of the plain and the
thought of ground sloths surviving
on the wide pampas, unobserved by
the vaqueros of southern Argentina
is absurd in the extreme. It is true
that some genera of ground sloth
(for example, Megatherium) may
have been browsers of the forest, but
there has never been any suggestion
that these giants survived to modern
times.
When Eberhardt cave was first
brought to scientific attention,
the age of archaeological and
palaeontological remains was
almost always a mystery. Relative
dating of secure stratigraphic
layers was the only way to estimate
the age of artefacts. In the 1950s,
dating was revolutionised by the
discovery of radiocarbon. For the
first time ever, absolute dates could

be obtained from organic material.


The incredible assortment of bones,
dung and skin from Eberhardt Cave
were a treasure trove of dateable,
organic riches. More than anything
else, radiocarbon dating held the
promise of putting a definite age on
the demise of the Mylodon. Almost
30 dates have now been obtained
from Mylodon remains (including
skin) which all date within the range
of 10,200 to 13,600 radiocarbon
years BP (Tonni et al, 2003). Sadly,
it appears that the last ground
sloths in Patagonia were probably
hunted to extinction over a hundred
centuries ago, soon after the first
humans arrived in the southern tip
of South America.

References
Oren, D. C. Does the Endangered
Xenarthran Fauna of Amazonia
Include Remnant Ground Sloths?
Edentata, 2-5 (2001).
Bell, C. M. Did elephants hang from
trees?-the giant sloths of South
America. Geology Today 18, 63-66
(2002).
Lnnberg, E. in Svenska Expeditionen
Magellanslnderna 149-170 (1896).
Moreno, F. P. & Woodward, A. S.
On a Portion of Mammalian Skin
named Neomylodon listai, from a
Cavern near Consuelo Cove, Last
Hope Inlet, Patagonia. Proceedings
of the Zoological Society of London
5, 144-156 (1899).
Lnnberg, E. On a remarkable Piece
of Skin from Cueva Eberhardt, Last
Hope Inlet, Patagonia. Proceedings
of the Zoological Society of London,
379-384 (1900).
Hesketh Prichard, H. Through the
Heart of Patagonia (D. Appleton &
Co., New York, 1902).
Heuvelmans, B. in On the track of
unknown animals 253-283 (1958).
Moore, D. M. Post-glacial vegetation
in the South Patagonian territory
of the giant ground sloth, Mylodon.
Botanical Journal of the Linnean
Society 77, 177-202 (1978).
Tonni, E. P., Carlini, A. A., Scillato
Yane, G. J. & Figini, A. J. Cronologia
radiocarbonica
y
condiciones
climaticas en la Cueva del Milodon
(sur de Chile) durante el Pleistoceno
Tardio. Ameghiniana 40, 1-7
(2003).
Stock, C. Problems of Antiquity
presented in Gypsum Cave, Nevada.
The Scientific Monthly 32, 22-32
(1931).

Radiocarbon Dating
The dating of organic remains has revolutionised the field of archaeology.
In 1947, the chemist, Willard Libby, realised that there was a natural
radioactive cycle that could be used to measure how old organic remains
were. He had been involved in atomic research during WWII for the
American government, which had identified the production of radioisotopes
in the atmosphere from cosmic rays. The radiocarbon cycle starts when
nitrogen 14 is converted into carbon 14 in the upper atmosphere by
the addition of a neutron. Plants then take up this long-lived natural
radioisotope as CO2 during photosynthesis, converting it into sugars.
When an animal eats a plant, the carbon 14 is built into its own tissues as
it grows. And, if a carnivore eats that animal, it builds carbon 14 into its
own tissues. Carbon 14 is continually absorbed into every living creature
at a rate proportional to the atmospheric concentration while it is alive, but
then decays at a steady rate after it has died.
Radiocarbon dating of organic remains (for example, charcoal, wood, ivory
and bone) relies on measuring the ratio of carbon 14 to the stable (nondecaying) isotopes carbon 12 or carbon 13 in a sample and comparing it to
a modern standard. Since carbon 14 is radioactive, the concentration can
be measured by detecting the number of decay events using something
similar to a Geiger counter. The half-life of carbon 14 is approximately
5,730 years, so the amount of carbon 14 is reduced by half every 5,730
years. This means that carbon 14 can be measured from samples up to
about 50,000 years old (about nine half-lives) as, at this age, about 0.2%
of the original carbon 14 remains undecayed - the limits of detection. This
percentage can then easily be converted into a date with error margins.
However, we now know that the concentration of carbon 14 in the
atmosphere has not been constant, but has varied slightly over time. This
effect has been investigated using radiocarbon from the annual growth
rings of long-lived trees (for example, bristlecone pines) and overlapping
dendro-chronological sequences from ancient trees recovered from peat
bogs. These factors mean that radiocarbon years are not the same as
calendar years and have to be converted from one to the other. Typically,
radiocarbon years are significantly longer than calendar years. A date
reported as 10,000 radiocarbon years corresponds to a calendar age of
about 13,000 years.
References
Renfrew, C. & Bahn, P. Archaeology: Theories, Methods and Practice. (2004)

Some material from Amsterdam.

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