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 telltale.

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.

On the trail of a man-eating megatherium

Posted by on April 29, 2009

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]

Sooner 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 listai.

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 soil.

Ameghino’s 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.

Newspapers in 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.

When Hauthal 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 ancient sloths.

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.

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