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Library & Archives

January 25, 2011
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Megatherium, the skeleton of the giant sloth

 

It is always a pleasure when the Library has an opportunity to bring out some of the more unusual material from it's collections. We have just had a behind the scenes visit from the NHM Members, and on this occasion our largest piece of artwork was the centre of attention.


Megatherium by the artist George Johann Scharf (1788-1860) measures 2.46m x 5.7m. It was commissioned by Professor Richard Owen (1804-1892), the renowned comparative anatomist, zoologist, palaeontologist, lecturer and first superintendent of the Natural History Museum.

 

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The giant ground sloth of South America had been known since the end of the 18th century. It existed during the Pleistocene, between 1.8 million and 11,000 years ago, and appears to have died out, not because of change in climate, but because of the actions of humans. It had long shaggy fur, foot long claws and long arms. It was huge - as big as an elephant, and was originally thought to be a quadruped. It was first described by the famous French comparative anatomist Baron Georges Cuvier in 1796, on the basis of drawings of a mounted skeleton sent to him from Madrid. This skeleton had been brought over from the Spanish colonies in South America in 1785. After that, the remains of this gigantic sloth were avidly sought after by museums all around the world.


The Natural History Museum (then part of the British Museum) purchased Megatherium material in 1845. It had been collected from Lujan, near Buenos Aires, in Argentina in 1837. Meanwhile, the Royal College of Surgeons had Megatherium bones in their collection from the bed of the Rio Salada, south of Buenos Aires.


The watercolour held in the Library collections is likely to have been produced for purely scientific purposes rather than for display. Putting down on paper a reconstruction, using the information they had at the time, would have facilitated further debate and discussion. The image is in two tones. It is believed that the sandy colour denotes those specimens that Owen had to work with at the time, and the grey areas show those parts of the animal that were missing, with therefore assumptions being made. It was originally in one piece

 

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It was Richard Owen and Reverend Dr. William Buckland (1784-1856) who realised that it could not possibly have been a quadruped, that in fact it reared up on its massive legs, pulling down branches of trees to feed its great bulk. In 1849 plaster casts of bones from both collections were put together to form a composite skeleton. A small number of missing bones were modelled to fit: mainly ribs and vertebrae. The skeleton was mounted in the manner suggested by Owen and Buckland. The original Madrid specimen had been mounted on all fours like an elephant.


The huge cast of Megatherium is currently on display at the end of the NHM's Marine Fossil Reptiles gallery, and has been on constant display since the museum opened in 1881.

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As a result of it's enormous size and delicate nature, we do not bring out this treasured piece of artwork very often. I would encourage you to become an NHM Member and to sign up for the array of events they offer.


For more information visit the Members section on the NHM website.