Thursday, December 24, 2015

Where the Giant Ground Sloth, Mastodon, and Bison Roamed; Post Ice Age Orange County, New York

 In the winter of 1958, Roscoe W. Smith, founder and director of Old Museum Village of Smith’s Clove received a letter from David Baird, an assistant Curator of Vertebrate Paleontology in Princeton University’s Department of Geology. There had been several letters of inquiry on the part of Smith in 1956 regarding an early plaster cast of a megatherium americanum, or what was more commonly known as a giant ground sloth from the post Ice Age period at Princeton’s Guyot Hall. Smith had received information that the university would eventually be de-accessioning the 1867 cast that had long been a teaching tool for classes in Vertebrate Paleontology, as there were plans to move the contents of Guyot Hall and raze the building for a new dormitory.

As Baird would point out in his correspondence with the founder-director, “every 19th century museum of distinction had one of these casts as its centerpiece.” Over time, the Princeton cast, which is 13 feet tall and had first been exhibited at Nassau Hall in 1876 on the Princeton campus, had become something of a rarity as competition for museum space, greater availability of actual skeletons, and periodic shifts in choices of what life to emphasize from pre-history had unfolded over time. The actual skeleton from which the cast was made came from a discovery in the 1830s on the River Luxan, near Buenos Ayres. The bones were, as of 1959, divided between the Hunterian Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons, and the British Museum.

 Smith’s inquiries about the Princeton cast were motivated out of his ongoing plans to create a museum within a museum. The contrived 19th century museum or cabinet of curiosities on a large scale was one of 30 buildings at the museum that housed collections accrued largely by Smith himself. Particularly, the Natural History building showcased one of the most complete examples of a mastodont americanum, or Mastodon, ever exhumed. Orange County is actually the birthplace of vertebrate paleontology, as the first mastodon exhumed and eventually assembled was by Charles Willson Peale under the sponsorship of Thomas Jefferson in Montgomery, New York. At this present date, the remains of sixty nine different mastodons have been unearthed in New York State.
This is the plaster cast of the giant ground sloth at Museum Village. The theory is that the claw bone excavated in Orange County was incorporated into this cast, as the whereabouts of the identified real sloth claw is not known.

In 1952, during the construction of New York’s Route 17, which is proximate to Museum Village, Smith’s “Harriman Mastodon” was discovered in a meadow owned by Mrs. Edith Loostron when contractors Garcia and John Leinweber of Warwick were cleaning and widening a drainage ditch with a gasoline engine driven shovel or loader." The bones were exposed, "washed up" and taken "to Arden House, owned and used by Columbia University and shown there. No particular interest being shown, they then took them home to Warwick. The Warwick Dispatch photographed them and published a short news article and picture of the bones." Mith learned of the find and made arrangements with Mrs. Loostron to dig for the rest of the bones and to have all that were found. "The American Museum of Natural History was contacted and told of the find and asked if they could furnish an expert to supervise the excavating" and removal of bones. W.E. Fish from the museum quickly responded and exhumation of the remaining skeleton moved ahead.

There were already remains of mastodons in the collection at this point, as any such remains were always being sought. Among these was a tusk that Smith had acquired in 1925. There would also be other finds, including another nearly complete mastodon uncovered during work on the twin lakes in Monroe, also in proximity to the museum. This mastodon would eventually make its way to Germany where it remains.

The exhumation of a mastodon was still quite an endeavor in 1952, as it had been for Peale back in 1801, with the necessity for hoisting equipment and water pumps. By today’s standards, there was much manual labor involved. Existing film footage in the museum’s collection illustrates the necessity of dozens of men with spades in hand and knee deep in mud. For the assembly of the mastodon skeleton and its preservation the American Museum of Natural History was sought out, and Dr. Edwin S. Colbert and George O. Whitaker were engaged to take on the project. It was Whitaker who eventually supervised the reconstruction in the newly created Natural History building at the museum. The project was completed in 1955.

Whitaker would also be integral to the sloth project. Getting him for the project was seemingly not that easy, as he was much sought-after. Various projects detained him temporarily for the pressing task of removing the sloth from Princeton in 1959, including the assembly of a 65 foot sauropod dinosaur for the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. A number of years before a piece of what had been conclusively identified as a piece of a megatherium had been found only a mile from the Museum Village site in a meadow of black dirt, and Smith had acquired this for his museum. This was a rare find, as no other remains of a ground sloth had been found or since this find.

The rarity of ground sloth remains in Orange County is largely attributed to the fact that this quadruped was attracted to highland terrains where trees were available for sustenance. These regions were not a good environment for long term preservation like the mastodons that had ideally been encased in a layer of marl, or clay, under the areas’ black dirt. It is this black dirt and marl that are the remains of glacial lakes of the post Ice Age period. What is often overlooked by laymen visitors is the fact that mastodon remains, including Museum Village’s own nearly complete specimen assembled in its Natural History building, consist of bone remains rather than fossils. This is a phenomenon whereby bone tissue, as in the case of earlier dinosaurs, was replaced by minerals which subsequently solidified into a rock form over the course of millions of years.

The mastodon, nor the sloth, are dinosaurs; they are early mammals that were actually hunted and eaten by modern man more than 10,000 years ago; in fact, one theory argues that the mastodon, which was dwindling in numbers from environmental conditions from a radical increase of the earth’s temperature in a short period, was hunted to extinction by Paleolithic Indians that had recently migrated to North America, including Orange County, New York. This may be true of the sloth as well, but more conclusive is the fact that the terrain which the sloth preferred was not the kind of terrain that would sustain its skeletal remains after death for tens of thousands of years. Other animals and climate conditions would have erased almost all signs of the sloth in a short time.

In addition to the claw bone of a sloth, Smith claimed that during the exhumation of the Harriman mastodon “several other small bones” were discovered. and these he states were identified by the American Museum of Natural History as “bison bones”, which Smith adds “so I suppose we can believe that buffalos roamed this country in bygone days.” The bison bones are mentioned several times in Smith's correspondence with Dr. Glenn Jepsen of Princeton, but no other documentation has been found to verify this. To this date, the paleontology community have no documented giant bison finds in Orange County, NY. Further research will be done, as this may be an important unpublished discovery.

Given the limited remains of both the sloth and bison, Smith had been motivated to secure life size plaster casts to supplement them for the sake of especially young visitors who, it was believed, would otherwise take little away from the experience of seeing a few fragments of the large post Ice Age mammals. Initially, Colbert expressed concern about the use of plaster casts, as he believed they alone would serve as unconvincing evidence to the public that such creatures existed; it is authentic bones or fossils alone that are the required evidence he would argue. Colbert did eventually concede that in combination with the actual bones, a plaster cast may serve a role until some future discovery provides an alternative.

In November, 1959 Smith had arranged for Whitaker, two trucks, and his Museum Village crew with “lots of rock wool, padding, timbers, step ladder, tripod, rubber tired rollers, and rope to do the job” of moving the plaster sloth skeleton to Monroe. In addition, Smith himself had been persuaded by staff to remain behind “because my people thought I might interfere or suggest methods for handling it.” It is likely that Smith regretted this concession as he would receive a call from Dr. Jepsen from Guyot Hall on the day of the move that a mishap has occurred, and in a letter from Smith to Dr. Colbert of the American Museum of Natural History he elaborated that “the skeleton got away from them (his crew and Whitaker) before the wood frame was fastened to it and after it was partly dismembered, and fell backwards. You can’t imagine the damage it did to the plaster.”

Plans were made for the repairs soon, and Whitaker made a “promise… [to] come in his spare time and do the finishing” of the plaster repairs. Smith sought others from New York to assist. The repairs were accomplished, and to this day the sloth stands where it was completely re-assembled in 1960 with visible repairs resulting from that day’s mishap. They are concentrated in the upper part of the skeleton, including a number of ribs..

By March of 1960, in a follow-up to Dr. Jepsen, Smith reported that George Whitaker was still at work on the repairs of the sloth, and it was anticipated that the damaged ribs would be entirely repaired after yet another future weekend of work. At Princeton, Guyot Hall had since been torn down, and, ironically, in excavating the site ‘a fossil bone of the reptile Clepsysaurus, a 275,000,000-year-old ancestor of the modern crocodile, had been found!

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