A University of Florida geology student stumbled across the remains of what is apparently the oldest giant sloth ever found in North America and discovered a treasure trove of early Ice Age fossils, a university spokesman said Friday.
The student, Daniel Delgado, unearthed the 2-million-year-old sloth skeleton when he wandered away from other students during a geology field trip in central Florida, said David Webb, director of the university's Department of Vertebrate Paleontology."Just by tremendously good luck, digging with his hands, he knocked loose a couple of vertebrae," Webb said. "He took a handful or two of clay from the side of the quarry and boom! there it was."
The fossilized sloth skeleton is the most spectacular find at what was apparently a quiet, muddy-bottomed pond. Other fossils found since the site was uncovered about 10 days ago include the skeleton of a giant armadillo, rare plant remains, frogs, ducks, an alligator and a dozen perfectly preserved turtles, all about 2 million years old.
Giant sloths, called Eremotheriums, grew to be 20 feet tall and were more bulky than modern-day elephants, Webb said. The UF find is smaller than that, perhaps about 16 feet tall, because it dates to the beginning of the Ice Age.
Most fossil giant sloths found in North America date only to the end of the Ice Age. By that time they had evolved and grown larger.
"It's probably the oldest ever in North America," Webb said. "Most of the others we have found have been quite recent, as recent as a few thousand years.
"The one we have dates back 2 million years, to the very beginning of the Ice Age."
Other early Ice Age giant sloths have been found, Webb said, mostly in South America.
Webb believes that in the sloth's lifetime, the pond was in a wet, lush, forest in a near-tropical climate. While it is not yet possible to determine how the animals died, Webb said it is possible they were caught in the quicksand-like pond bottom.
Their bodies were then buried under layers of silt and preserved in excellent condition.