Sloth in the Slough

Mural by Marisa Renz

(Sloth found in mid-90s and offered to the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville.
At the time, they declined. Some of the original bones and casts of others are now on permanent display at the Clewiston Museum)

By Mark Renz

For me, nothing compares to fossiling in Florida's creeks, especially those that are shallow enough to snorkel. In the southwestern part of the state where I live, these creeks contain some of the most interesting fossils to be found.

The creeks themselves offer unparalleled beauty. Their banks are often 15-20 feet high and lined with sturdy oaks, old growth cypress trees and sky-reaching cabbage palms. They so resemble eras gone by that I half expect to run face-to-face with a proud Calusa Indian or a ferocious saber-toothed cat.

Stumbling onto great finds may seem like a talent reserved for only a few amateur paleontologists among the thousands, but I'm a walking testament to the fact that skill ain't everything. If someone as lanky and scatter-brained as I am can find really cool stuff, anybody can. But that doesn't mean it's easy. I rely a wee bit on luck and whole lot on persistence. Of course, persistence means nothing if you're looking in the wrong place, but I never let that stop me.

I have hiked several miles up and down the steep banks of creeks, through thorns and thick saw palmetto shrubs and over & under barbed-wire fences (being careful to get permission first). All the while, the temperature outside my wet suit is closer to 100 than 90 and my water bottle is buried somewhere in the bottom of my pack along with a mashed banana and Ho-Ho Twinkies. My mask and snorkel, however, are where I can get to them quickly, along with a large empty fossil bag which I hope will be filled by the return trip home.

Have you ever noticed that when your hands are full, pesky horseflies and mosquitoes realize you're the most vulnerable? Fortunately, the occasional alligator or snake I have encountered have not been quite as observant.

Overall, the hardships have been well worth the spoils. One particular creek that I have become intimately familiar with and for which I have sweated off countless pounds of fat, almost always gives up wonderful finds. There are pockets every half mile or so that are so rich in fossil material the bones and teeth appear to have been dumped there by the truckload.

My first day in this particular creek, in an area about the size of an average living room, I picked up 44 ancient horse teeth, 100-plus glyptodont (VW-size armadillo) bony armor plates, 8 mako shark teeth, a Calusa Citrus point, 25 alligator teeth, umpteen turtle shell fragments, 4 whale vertebrae, 2 whale teeth, 7 pottery shards, 12 deer antler fragments, 7 barracuda teeth, 6 snaggletooth shark teeth, 3 great white shark teeth, 4 whale ear bones, garfish scales and various other fossils. Days like this make an amateur bonesmith like me ecstatic.

I have had other days equally rewarding in the same creek. However, none have been quite as exciting for me as a day in late December of 1992. I had a friend with me and we had trudged about two miles up a part of the creek I had never explored. We started out at 8:00 a.m., and it was now pushing dusk. When we finished, we would still have to make a two-mile trek back to the car. We were both frustrated because we hadn't found anything yet, not even a contemporary turtle shell fragment. My friend was even more frustrated because my legs were considerably longer and I tend to walk fast. Finally, I suggested I go it alone for the last quarter mile. So off I went. I was just about to call it quits when I noticed a few small black bone fragments in two feet of water, just downstream from a bend. I donned my mask, laid down in the creek and began inching my way upstream.

After several feet the bone fragments increased in number and size. Still, I couldn't identify any of them. They were too badly splintered. Then, off to my left a few feet, my peripheral vision caught a large black object sticking out of the sand. Accustomed to coming across submerged tree trunks, I casually scraped the object with my finger nail. But this time, instead of sinking into soft, water-logged wood, my nails met with resistance. Having been fooled many times into thinking I had found a large bone that turned out to be wood or metal, I still didn't get excited. Feeling a little irritated that I wasn't able to quickly confirm my suspicions, I began to dig around the object. Before long, I had freed it from its watery grave. It was only then that I realized I had half of what appeared to be a huge tibia. Was it from a mammoth? A mastodon?

To date, it was my largest find and the adrenaline surged through my body. I stuck my hand through the sand where I found the bone and felt something else hard that my finger nails couldn't gouge. When I worked it out and held it up, I knew right away what I had found. In my hand was a claw core, or the bone with the claw itself, over 18 inches long. It belonged to an Eremotherium, the largest of the sloths, and the biggest land animal ever to live in Florida.

I came up out of the water screaming like a passionate lover, "Yes! Yes! Yes!" I sprinted back to my friend, clutching the claw in my hand. "Guess what I found?" I asked excitedly, hiding the claw core behind my back. When I showed it off, we both agreed it came from one heck of a large sloth. We hurried back to the spot to see if there were more bones buried in the sand. There were, but it was fast getting dark and extremely difficult to see. I hated to leave, but the search would have to continue the following morning. That night, I slept with the claw next to my pillow. Throughout the night, I kept waking up and touching the claw core to make sure I hadn't dreamed the whole thing. We arrived at daybreak, blowing the sand away with our hands in about two feet of water. Everywhere we fanned, there were large chunks of black bone. By the time the day ended, we had found several hundred pounds of sloth, including a second claw core at 15 inches, 3 tibias (which meant there was more than one animal!), parts of a humerus, 17 vertebrae, broken ribs, finger bones, bowling ball-size ankle bones, part of the jaw with 3 teeth embedded each about 7 inches long, countless partial teeth and part of its snout. All this in an area about the size of bachelor's bedroom.

In the midst of the bones was a cabbage palm tree that appeared to have recently washed out of the banks. Perhaps the sloth was under the tree roots in the bank, or was already in the creek and the tree produced a wash-out effect around the bones. Scattered under the bones were a number of alligator teeth. Were they lost feeding on the carcass? Or did they exist at a different time - perhaps 10 thousand years later - and just happen to get washed into the same location? Also, within a mile of the site, I discovered evidence of a smaller species of sloth one that was about the size of a large bull. Sticking out of the creek bank within a short distance from each other was a tibia and ankle bone, as well as two smaller 4-inch claw cores and a sloth tooth.

In the same area was the Calusa Indian Citrus Point I mentioned, as well as a very unusual shark (Carcharocles megalodon) tooth. It had a hole drilled through the root from both sides, narrowing toward the middle. The outside edges of the tooth were sanded flat. Perhaps it was worn as a pendant by an early native American?

When I found the sloth, I kept hoping to find evidence that humans had somehow been involved in the kill, but there were no unusual markings on the bone. Still, I was awestruck that my human eyes were probably the first to have seen this extinct herbivore since it died. NOTE:

(Sloth found in mid-90s and offered to the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville.
At the time, they declined. Some of the original bones and casts of others are now on permanent display at the Clewiston Museum)