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Friday, August 29, 2014
On the Trail of a Man-eating Megatherium
This is a little bit more on the giant sloth in South America and
provides additional information also that we had not yet had. That
it may also be aquatic is a surprise, but then it would be a good
swimmer. It may also be a defense method during the molting season.
More important, the extreme danger is surely coming to us by way of
the natives. I already know that but that is on the basis of one
unidentified report describing the creature's murderous behavior. As
stated already, this is one scary creature capable of truly tearing
its victims apart. It then buries the gobbets in caches to produce a
maggot feast many days later. That is why it stinks and is the only
creature that properly does. In fact that is the confirmation
I have no doubt it has been encountered and simply not survived. It
is a ambush predator first and a fast charger second. Worse it can
absorb bullets better than any Grizzly bear. It should also have
excellent eyesight as well.
Contrary to the speculations here, this creature will never be
domesticated and it would be trouble to keep fed. More likely one
was captured somehow, likely with ropes, and held for sale.
It was not so long ago
that tales of an awful creature that stalked the pampas of Patagonia
were commonly told. It was difficult, if not impossible, to find
anyone who had actually seen it, but many knew of its fearsome power.
It was called the Yemisch, and it was a predator that preferred to
disembowel its prey. One moment a person or some cattle would be
crossing the stream and the next the water would be a blood-red boil.
All that was usually left of the victims were greasy entrails
floating their way downstream.
That such a creature
existed was confirmed by a discovery made in January 1895 near Last
Hope Inlet in Chile. Near the entrance of a cave a group of men found
a large piece of skin, about five feet long and three feet wide,
covered with coarse hair and pockmarked with tough ossicles. This
must have been the skin of the Yemisch. The jerky-like bits were
divvied up among the discoverers and fame of their find spread.
A cross-section of the
giant sloth hide from the cave at Last Hope Inlet. [source]
or later word of the find reached the eminent South American
paleontologist Florention Ameghino, and he quickly recognized the
type of animal the skin belonged to. In 1898 the Argentine naturalist
identified the skin as belonging to a giant ground sloth. That this
was true was backed up by a story he knew of a man named Ramon Lista
who said he had seen a giant pangolin trundling about the pampas. It
could not have been a pangolin, Ameghino knew, but was instead the
Yemisch of the native people and the giant ground sloth of
scientists. In his report Ameghino wrote;
Lately, several little
ossicles have been brought to me from Southern Patagonia, and I have
been asked to what animal they could belong. What was my surprise on
seeing in my hand these ossicles in a fresh state, and,
notwithstanding that, absolutely similar to the fossil dermal
ossicles of the genus Mylodon, except only that they are of
smaller size, varying from nine to thirteen or fourteen millimeters
across. I have carefully studied these little bones from every point
of view without being able to discern any essential difference from
those found in a fossil state.
These ossicles were
taken from a skin, which was unfortunately incomplete, and without
any trace of the extremities. The skin, which was found on the
surface of the ground, and showed signs of being exposed for several
months to the action of the air, is in part discolored. It has a
thickness of about two centimeters, and is so tough that it is
necessary to employ an axe or a saw in order to cut it. The
thickest part of the skin is filled by the little ossicles referred
to, pressed one against the other, presenting on the inner surface of
the skin an arrangement similar to the pavement of a street.
The exterior surface shows a continuous epidermis, not scaly, covered
with coarse hair, hard and stiff, having a length of four to five
centimeters and a reddish tint turning toward gray.
The skin indeed
belongs to the pangolin which Lista saw living. This unfortunate
traveler lost his life, like CreVaux, in his attempt to explore the
Pilcomayo, and until the present time he is the only civilized person
who has seen the mysterious edentate of Southern Patagonia alive; and
to attach his name appropriately to the discovery, I call this
surviving representative of the family Mylodontidae Neomylodon
Now that there are
certain proofs of its existence, we hope that the hunt for it will
not be delayed, and that before long we may be able to present to the
scientific world a detailed description of this last representative
of a group which has of old played a preponderating part in the
terrestrial faunas which have succeeded each other on South American
hypothesis was confirmed when his brother Carlos, the field man of
the duo, collected some more descriptions of the Yemisch from native
people. It was indeed a large, amphibious mammal that
sounded just like a giant ground sloth. They even had some bits of
skin like those collected from Last Hope Inlet which they attributed
to the animal. Clearly giant sloths were still roaming
South America, and they were dangerous creatures indeed.
Argentina went crazy over the story. Not only had the continent’s
most eminent paleontologist confirmed the existence of living giant
sloths but new sightings funneled their way into the press. The
megatherium fever even stretched to England where some naturalists,
like E. Ray Lankester, agreed that giant ground sloths may still
survive in South America. It is not surprising then that some
enterprising souls set out to catch the beast, but all ultimately
returned empty handed. It seemed that those who went out looking for
the Neomylodon were the least likely to find it.
Not everyone was
convinced that giant ground sloths survived into the modern day,
however, and some of Florentino’s South American colleagues thought
that his enthusiasm had superseded good judgment. To check the
validity of Ameghino’s claim the naturalist Rodolfo Hauthal went
back to the Lost Hope Inlet cave to reexamine the evidence. His
conslusions were just as startling as Ameghino’s.
investigated the cave he found stone tools, hay, charcoal, plant
fibers, sloth bones, and a pile of sloth dung several feet high.
What could this all mean? Clearly humans and sloths had both used the
cave, but Hauthal went a step further to suggest that they had been
in the cave at the same time. Humans had held sloths in captivity and
may have even domesticated them, Hauthal argued, and the Lost Hope
Inlet cave had once been a giant sloth stable. For this reason the
kind of extinct sloth represented by the scraps of skin and bones was
renamed Grypotherium domesticum, the domestic ground sloth.
(It is also noteworthy
that Hauthal and colleagues re-named the animal said to terrify the
native people. Based upon the evidence from folklore they renamed it
Iemisch listai, a move that irritated some other scientists. In a
review of the papers, for instance, the paleontologist J.B. Hatcher
objected to 1) using a “barbarous” native word as a genus name,
and 2) erecting a new genus and species on folklore.)
It seems that other
authorities did not quite know what to make of Hauthal’s
hypothesis. It was often repeated in reviews and announcements but
rarely did it receive further comment (at least in English-language
publications). The author of To the River Plate and Back,
William Jacob Holland, agreed but it seems that many others did not
know how to handle the idea of domesticated giant sloths. Even the
paleontologist A.S. Woodward, while skeptical, wanted to know
more about this potential relationship between humans and
In the end, though,
the tale of the Yemisch seemed to unravel. J.B. Hatcher stated that
he had never heard of such a creature during his time in South
America and others suggested that the mythological creature was
better understood as an amalgam of a giant river otter and
a jaguar. It was entirely possible that the Ameghino brothers
inflated what little they had heard from the native people and the
newspapers ran with it once it hit the academic presses.
We should not be too
hasty in saying that the Ameghinos created a story where there was
none, however. Recall that Thomas Jefferson, on first sight of seeing
the huge claws of the giant sloth Megalonyx, thought they belonged to
an enormous tiger-like cat. If the native people of Patagonia did
hold beliefs about the Yemisch it is entirely possible that their
beliefs were reinforced by finding the plentiful remains of giant
sloths. This one sounds like a case for ageomythologist.