On Display: Slothing Around

The Megatherium of Clapp Lab

Screen Shot 2014-06-23 at 9.03.53 AM.jpgClimb to the fourth floor of Clapp Laboratory, and you’ll be confronted by a skeleton made up of what many initially mistake to be dinosaur bones. Look a little closer and you may begin to recognize the rounded snout or the long claws that tightly grip the branch of a tree. The Megatherium was a genus of elephant-sized ground sloths (related to the modern sloth) that existed during the Pleistocene epoch, 2.5 million to 11,700 years ago. Weighing up to four tons and measuring
twenty feet in length from head to tail, the giant
sloths were native to Central and South America.

In 1875 Mount Holyoke sought to furnish the newly completed Williston Hall with a “Geological Cabinet.” Alumnae raised $1,800 for the purchase of the Megatherium skeleton from Henry Augustus Ward, a professor at the University of Rochester who founded Ward’s Natural Science, an enterprise that collected specimens from all parts of the world. For several decades, Williston Hall contained one of the largest natural history collections of any college in the country. Three days before Christmas in the winter of 1917, Williston burned to the ground, and the skeleton was one of only a handful of the specimens that survived.

It wasn’t until 1974 that two students found the bones of the Megatherium in a closet in Safford Hall, where someone had stored them for safe keeping after the fire and presumably forgotten about them. As a Winter Term Project in 1975, under the supervision of biology professor Curtis Smith, the skeleton was repaired and reassembled and has been on display in Clapp ever since. Today, professors use the Megatherium and other specimens from the College’s collection to teach about mammalian evolution.

—By Taylor Scott

This article appeared in the summer 2014 issue of the Alumnae Quarterly.

Williston Hall and the College’s original “Geological Collection”

  • Williston Hall, 1880
    The original Williston Hall building, 1880
  • Williston Geological Collection, 1877
    Williston Hall, second floor, view of fossil casts, 1877
  • Williston Geological Collection, 1877
    Williston Hall, second floor, view of fossil casts, 1877
  • Williston Geological Collection, 1877
    Williston Hall, second floor, view of fossil casts, 1877
  • Williston Hall, 1899
    Williston Hall in the snow, 1899
  • Williston Hall, 1890
    Students working in a zoology laboratory, 1890
  • Williston Hall, 1891
    Biology classroom in Williston Hall, 1891
  • Williston Hall, 1893
    Zoology classroom in Williston Hall, 1893
  • Williston Hall, 1890s
    The Botanical Room, Williston Hall, circa 1890s
  • Williston Hall, 1890s
    The Zoological Laboratory, Williston Hall, circa 1890s
  • Williston Hall, 1890s
    The Ornithological Alcove, Williston Hall, circa 1890s
  • Williston Hall Fire, 1917
    Women sort through the rubble of Williston Hall, 1917
  • Williston Hall Fire, 1917
    The ruins of Williston Hall after the fire, 1917

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4 responses to “On Display: Slothing Around”

  1. Wendy Chenoweth Rayfield says:

    I used to love to study under that form – inspired my imagination and drive, and this was spring ’75, immediately after they had rebuilt and erected that mighty creature, just outside my calculus class. 🙂

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  3. unknown says:

    I remember when the “bones” were found in 1974 – by Vickie and Carmela – both class of 1975.

  4. Eloise Prescott Killeffer '68 says:

    Devotees of Dorothy L. Sayers’s Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries will recognize the Megatherium name from the “Strong Poison” story. A devious lawyer was involved deeply in the crash of the Megatherium Trust, Ltd. through speculation with an elderly client’s funds. I always thought DLS made up that name out of whole cloth. Little did I know!

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