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IU re-creating ‘Megajeff,’ an ancient giant sloth skeleton that once resided on campus

Apr 9, 2019

During the last Ice Age, a giant sloth called Megalonyx jeffersonii roamed Indiana. A few short millennia later, researchers from Indiana University’s Indiana Geological and Water Survey are roaming the country scanning bones from the ancient creature.

The work is part of an effort to digitally reproduce the nearly complete Megalonyx jeffersonii skeleton that was housed at IU in the late 19th and early 20th century. Due to the fossil’s prominent history at IU, the project is funded under the IU Bicentennial Grant Proposal program and will play a role in the university’s bicentennial celebration.

“Being that it’s such an engaging story, I’ve always wanted to use it to show how important natural history specimens are for research and education,” said Polly Root Sturgeon, outreach coordinator at the Indiana Geological and Water Survey. “We looked into seeing how we could make this skeleton come back to life.”

Picture of the original sloth skeleton from 1876
This original photographic print of IU’s Megalonyx skeleton can be found in a book of photographs by T.A. Wylie and S. B. Wylie for the 1876 Exposition at Philadelphia.Photo courtesy of the IU Archives

The story of the Megalonyx jeffersonii – affectionately known as “Megajeff” at the survey – dates back to 1834, when the skeleton was discovered along the banks of the Ohio River by David Dale Owen, a geologist who conducted the first geological survey of Indiana. After Owen died in 1860, his specimens were sold to IU and housed in Science Hall on the old campus at Seminary Square, forming the foundation of IU’s natural history collection.

The skeleton survived IU’s fire of 1883 and was then moved with the other surviving specimens to the newly built Owen Hall. But increased enrollment following World War II drove a push to increase space for students across campus. As a result, many specimens were thrown out, including the Megalonyx, most likely between 1945 and 1947 based upon interviews with alumni from the 1940s. One said the Megalonyx – at 10½ feet tall, about the same height as a modern-day polar bear standing on its hind legs – was “tossed out of the second-floor window” of Owen Hall, along with bones from mastodons and mammoths.

Yet five bones from the pile were saved and put on display at the IU Anthropology Museum, now the Mathers Museum of World Cultures. In 1982, the museum’s leaders decided that the bones were no longer within the scope of the collection and donated them to the Indiana State Museum, where they reside today.

Polly Sturgeon and Gary Motz 3d scan the Megalonyx bones
Polly Sturgeon, left, and Gary Motz scanning the Megalonyx bones.Photo by Chaz Mottinger, Indiana University

Sturgeon and Gary Motz, assistant director for information services at the Indiana Geological and Water Survey, scanned the five surviving Megalonyx bones at the Indiana State Museum in February. They are also connecting with other museums and universities to scan additional bones in order to digitally fabricate a complete skeleton. Other institutions contributing to the project include the Smithsonian Institution, Virginia Commonwealth University, Ohio State University, University of Iowa and University of Dayton.

“We will digitally manipulate the files from other museums and universities to match the size of our former Megalonyx bones,” Sturgeon said. “We’re going to 3D-print the skull and claws, and then stack pieces of laser-cut cardboard to re-create a full skeleton.”

This semester, Sturgeon and Motz are 3D-scanning the remaining Megalonyx fossils and working with the School of Informatics and Computing at IUPUI to compile and clean the digital data. Two IUPUI students in particular, Andrew Bush and Jeremy Balch, are focused on cleaning up the data and reconstructing the digital skeleton.

“IUPUI’s Media Arts and Sciences Lab has a lot of expertise in doing digital reconstructions,” Sturgeon said. “We’ve worked with them on projects in the past, so we knew they were the ones to call.”

A closeup of the current Megalonyx bones
The Megalonyx jeffersonii bones.Photo by Chaz Mottinger, Indiana University

Once the skeleton is digitally reconstructed, Sturgeon and Motz will work with staff on the IU Bloomington campus to digitally fabricate the skeleton. 3D printing will begin this summer at the IU Wells Library 3D Print Lab, and laser cutting of the larger skeleton will occur at the IU School of Art, Architecture + Design Makerspace for Art and Design Labs.

With the reconstructed skeleton, Sturgeon said IU’s story of “Megajeff” can be told in a unique and engaging way. The skeleton will become part of a digital exhibit created by Sturgeon and Heather Calloway, executive director for university collections. The exhibit will also include an interactive touch-screen experience where participants can explore digital models of the fossil bones and look at how IU has preserved its history through archival records and photographs.

The exhibit will also join the IU Bicentennial Traveling Exhibit, traveling across Indiana’s 92 countries in a customized RV. The tour will take place between fall 2019 and summer 2020. After it ends, the Megalonyx will go on display at the Indiana Geological and Water Survey Learning Lab Museum and the Indiana State Museum.

Ultimately, the Indiana Geological and Water Survey’s goal is to share the importance of preserving natural history collections for future generations.

“This project drives home the importance of preservation,” Sturgeon said. “This is a way to take IU’s commitment to collections a step further and re-discover our shared natural history.”

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