Prehistoric sloth gets new home at University
Press release, University of Georgia, April 12, 1973
Athens, Ga. – The skeleton of a giant North American sloth that roamed coastal Georgia 14,000 years ago has been assembled at the University of Georgia and will be formally dedicated April 14 by Gov. Jimmy Carter, who helped finance the project.
Measuring about 13 feet in length and weighing between 2,500 and 3,000 pounds, the skeleton is the first of a prehistoric animal ever put together in Georgia and only the fourth North American ground sloth known to have been mounted anywhere.
The bones, discovered in 1970 during the construction of Interstate Highway 95 near Brunswick, were excavated by college students directed by Dr. Michael Voorhies, associate professor of geology at the University. One of the students, Albert Brantley, an undergraduate in geology at the time, was chosen to reconstruct and mount the skeleton. He has been at the task for three years.
Carter’s interest in the project began when Brantley asked him for financial assistance. The governor promised to match any funds Brantley raised elsewhere.
With help from Albert Jones, assistant to University president Fred Davidson, Brantley received $2,000 from the university’s Alumni Foundation, which Carter matched. Later, both the foundation and the governor gave an additional $600.
The skeleton is on display in the Boyd Graduate Studies Research Center on the campus. Carter will dedicate it with a brief ceremony at 6:15pm. Davidson will introduce the governor.
When it lived during the late ice age, the adult giant sloth weighed about 3 tons and reached a height of about nine feet on all fours and about 20 feet it stood upright on its back legs. It probably had long, coarse reddish-brown hair and foot-long irretractable claws that forced it to walk on the sides of its hands.
The animal ate roots, twigs and tree leaves and was probably docile and slow-witted, Brantley said. The North American variety lived in the southeastern and central United States and a South American species lived in Central America and southwestern South America.
About 350 bones from three giant sloths were found at the Brunswick site but many were duplicates or were unusable and Brantley did not have all 208 bones necessary for one complete skeleton. So he had to make about 45 per cent of the mounted skeleton’s brownish-gray bones from plaster of paris or fiberglas. Despite this, the skeleton is by far the most complete ever found, he said.
Two other giant North American sloth skeletons are on display at the Smithsonian Institution and one skeleton – found in Georgia in the last century – is at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, Brantley said.
Bones of several other prehistoric animals were found with the sloth bones, but Brantley said there is no doubt the creature he has reconstructed is a giant sloth. “Nothing ever had teeth like this,” he said of the animal’s inch-thick teeth, each of which is almost split crosswise by a deep crevice.
The animal probably died when it got stuck in salt marsh mud, and Brantley simulated a marsh to reconstruct the death scene. The skeleton’s two back feet and one front hand are invisible in the mud while one hand grasps for freedom.
Brantley, 25, graduated from the University of Georgia in 1970. In preparation for the mounting task, he studied at the Royal Ontario Museum, which has several South American ground sloth skeletons from which Brantley was able to make measurements and rubber molds for pieces missing from the Georgia sloth.
Photo by Georgia Harper