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August 25, 2010
Press Release: Martinsville Bulletin

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

By ELIZA WINSTON - Bulletin Staff Writer

The giant ground sloth went extinct about 10,000 years ago, but one of them was on the move Sunday at the Virginia Museum of Natural History.

A life-size, 10-foot-tall model of Jefferson's Ground Sloth (Megalonyx jeffersonii) named "Clawd" has been a fixture at the museum since 1990, said Ryan Barber, marketing and external affairs director at VMNH. Clawd had been displayed on the museum's upper level, overlooking the main floor, since the new museum opened in 2007.

That changed Sunday, when museum officials moved Clawd downstairs to the Saltville exhibit in the Uncovering Virginia gallery.

The Saltville exhibit explores what Virginia was like during the Ice Age, when real-life Clawds might have walked through the future backyards of Henry County and Martinsville.

According to information in a 1985 VMNH newsletter, the Jefferson Ground Sloth lived in caves and survived the Ice Age only to become extinct some 10,000 years ago. Some scientists believe early man wiped out the giant ground sloth through hunting, wrote Noel Boaz, the museum's first director.

Clawd now will be a permanent part of the Saltville exhibit, Barber said. The move was necessary because Clawd's former home on the museum's upper level soon will become a permanent dinosaur exhibit.

That new exhibit, expected to open in October, will provide a place for materials from the current "Messages from the Mesozoic" exhibit, Barber said.

That meant that Clawd - who would have lived during the Ice Age, not the earlier Mesozoic - had to be moved, Barber said.

Twenty years after Clawd joined the museum, he was showing signs of age and needed a few repairs. Before the model was moved, some of its toes were removed so they could be fixed, Barber said.

After the toes were taken off, Clawd's arm and tongue were detached before he was moved to the ground floor, said Barber. Once he was installed in the new location, the sloth's toes, tongue and arm were reattached.

Moving a giant ground sloth - even an inanimate one - is no easy feat, according to Barber. Made of a combination of fiberglass, wood and synthetic hair, Clawd weighs several hundred pounds, Barber said.

To move him, museum personnel placed Clawd on a lift and lowered him to the ground floor. From there, he was lifted onto a flat rolling cart and transported to the Saltville exhibit.

The model was created based on fossils and skeletons of the actual animal, Barber said.

According to former director Boaz's report, a fossilized leg and hand skeleton of the giant ground sloth became the first fossil vertebrate discovered and named in America. It was found in a cave in Greenbrier County, Va., (now West Virginia) in the 1790s, Boaz wrote.Â

Jefferson named the animal Megalonyx, meaning "great claw" in Greek, and thought it might have belonged to a large carnivorous, lion-like animal, Boaz wrote. With Jefferson's description of this beast in 1799, vertebrate paleontology started in this hemisphere, Boaz wrote.

The report added that a scientific colleague realized that the fossil actually was similar to the much smaller, living tree sloths of South America and named the species after Jefferson: Megalonyx jeffersonii. More recent discoveries have shown that the creature was the size of a large bear and was a vegetarian.

It used its large claws for digging and tearing vegetation, wrote Boaz.

Despite the giant claws, the sloth continues to be a popular attraction for museum visitors, Barber said.

"He's definitely touchable," Barber said, adding that visitors often take photos with him.

Barber said he has seen models of giant sloth skeletons, but he has never seen another life-like model of a giant sloth at a natural history museum. To preserve the unique sloth for future visitors, Barber said staff members are looking into building a platform around the model, which also would give visitors better visibility.