What the heck is that thing?



In a clip from the recent BBC program Museum of Life, visitors to London's Natural History Museum try to identify what kind of animal Megatherium was. Paleo fans will know it as one of the largest ground sloths to have ever lived (as well as one of the first to be described), but if I didn't know that and had no background in paleo, I might think it was a dinosaur, too!

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A restoration of Megatherium from H.N. Hutchinson's Extinct Monsters. For over a century and a half dinosaurs have been the unofficial symbols and ambassadors of paleontology, but this was not always so. It was fossil mammals, not dinosaurs, which enthralled the public during the turn of the 19th…
The skeleton of Megatherium, as figured in William Buckland's Geology and Mineralogy Considered With Reference to Natural Theology. There is something fantastically weird about giant ground sloths. Creatures from a not-too-distant past, close enough in time that their hair and hide is sometimes…
Presently only two genera of sloths exist, the two-toed sloths (Choloepus) and the three-toed sloth (Bradypus). They are the remaining vestiges of a much great past diversity, including many of the giant forms like Megatherium that occupied niches both in the trees and on the ground. As with most…
In considering the history of science, it is easy to think of scientific discovery and debate as distinct from the rest of culture. Academics picked away at fossils and squinted at the eyepieces of microscopes in isolation, and only in exceptional cases did science jump the cultural barrier to…

I don't think that anyone with even a modicum of anatomical or biological knowledge would mistake Megatherium for a dinosaur. It's so obviously a mammal that most anyone ought to recognize it as such, altho perhaps not recognize it as a xenarthran. I reckon that many folks might think it is some sort of giant bear.

By darwinsdog (not verified) on 21 Apr 2010 #permalink

Modicum is right. I just showed my son (aged 10) a still image from the video above and asked, "What's that?"

He glanced at it briefly, said, "Giant sloth. I love those things," and went back to dismembering lego on the Wii.

When Charles Darwin excavated a Megatherium at Punta Alta near Bahia Blanca during the Beagle voyage, he originally thought it to be 'allied to the Rhinoceros':
http://blog.friendsofdarwin.com/2007/09/20070923/

Here are some other images of the Natural History Museum's Megatherium - one a marvellous old etching, the other a photo taken by yours truly:
http://blog.friendsofdarwin.com/2009/07/20090722/
http://www.flickr.com/photos/gruts/3301286328/

50 points for the kid who said 'giant koala' for recognising mammalian herbivore.