Friday, April 30, 2010

The SeaTac Sloth

The human imagination can be caught by anything. Yesterday mine was captured by an extinct giant ground sloth.

Vonda McIntyre and I visited Seattle's Burke Museum, a small museum of natural history on the University of Washington campus. Among other fossils sits the SeaTac Sloth. This creature -- or rather, its bones, minus the head -- was discovered in 1961 when SeaTac (Seattle-Tacoma Airport) was undergoing construction. At what became the base of anchor 4B of FAA Approach Lighting System No. 1 at the north end of the airport, a construction worker found bones in the hole he was excavating. Work was immediately stopped and an expert summoned. (I love that image: "Cancel construction and get a paleontologist in here STAT!") The bones were identified as Washington State's only specimen of Megalonyx jeffersonii, a giant sloth that lived about 12,500 years ago, was about the size of a small cow, and ate vegetarian.

The name came from President Thomas Jefferson, who also discovered bones of one on his estate in Virginia. However, Jefferson was of the opinion that there might still be some of these creatures left deep in the unexplored American wilderness, peacefully munching away on roots and twigs in what would become Kansas. He was wrong, but that also is a nice image.

The museum's tiny gift shop did not, alas, have so much as a post card of the SeaTac Sloth, an unforgivable omission. They had buttons of pigs with teeth, puppets of saber-tooth tigers, and books about T. Rex, but nothing for the SeaTac Sloth. There just ain't no justice.


sndmaven said...

wow, this is a completely dorky comment to leave; but I think it's cool that two of my favorite writers went to a science museum together :) even nicer image, to me, than a sloth grazing in the wilds of Kansas.

TheOFloinn said...

There were Indian legends in early frontier times about creatures that sounded remarkably like big hairy elephants. Settlers headed west in the early 1800s sometimes spoke of "seeing the elephant", which became a figure of speech for seeing anything awesome. It is not beyond probability that a few of these critters did survive into historical times. Late enough, at least, to show up in then-current Indian legends.
+ + +

I had thought that the Sea-Tac sloth was the guy ahead of me in line at the Sea-Tac ticket counter.

Vonda N. McIntyre said...

Nancy, I really enjoyed our museum trip and hanging out with you.

Have you guys read The First Fossil Hunters or Fossil Legends of the First Americans by Adrienne Mayor? Really wonderful books.


qiihoskeh said...

Ah, "ate vegetarian", not "ate vegetarians"! I need to get my eyes checked.

SeaTac is a nice pedestrian-friendly airport, unlike the ones down here.

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