Portrait view of Megalonyx jeffersonii skeletal model

Megajeff, Champion of Fossil Collections

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Side view of Megalonyx jeffersonii skeletal model
Megalonyx jeffersonii in cardboard, in its temporary home at IU Bloomington’s Franklin Hall.

January 20, 2020 marked the bicentennial of Indiana University, the august institution where I completed my MFA studies and am now employed as a graphic designer. It also was the day that the university unveiled a special reproduction of Jefferson’s ground sloth, Megalonyx jeffersonii, fondly dubbed Megajeff.

Low angle front view of Megalonyx jeffersonii skeletal model
A mouse’s-eye view of Megajeff. Up on the screen, you can see Brian Engh’s paleoart commissioned by the IU Alumni Magazine.

Portrait view of Megalonyx jeffersonii skeletal model
Megajeff’s kisser.

Posterior view of Megalonyx jeffersonii skeletal model
#slothbutt

The reason the new model received a special place during the university’s bicentennial festivities is because of its connection to the history of fossil collections at IU. The original specimens were discovered on the Ohio River in 1848, shortly thereafter making their way to prominent Indiana naturalist David Dale Owen, who then sent the 69 bones to Joseph Leidy for description. It took a few years for Leidy to actually return the bones to Owen, but perhaps he should have kept them – a century later, nearly the entire skeleton was discarded. Legend has it that they were pitched from a second-floor window during a building renovation on the IU campus.

Fast-forward another seventy years or so, and the Indiana Geological and Water Survey has undertaken an effort to recreate what was so blithely thrown away. The remaining five bones from the original specimen have been scanned and 3D printed, and after an exhausting effort to digitize and properly scale the other bones from Megalonyx specimens across the country, an entire skeleton has been created from the 3D prints, augmented with laser-cut cardboard. Now, it is on display at IU’s Franklin Hall.

I visited the exhibit this week and I absolutely loved it. I know there’s a perceived sacred value to having Real Bones on display (ask a museum educator if they’ve ever been asked “how much of that is real?”). But I really love the look of the cardboard-wafer bones. They’re reminiscent of topographic maps, giving them an extra dimension of meaning. The original, earthy color of the cardboard suits them perfectly, too. It may not be the longest-lasting medium, but for an affordable model that can travel for public viewing, it fits the bill perfectly.

After reading about the story of Megajeff last April when the project was announced, I felt compelled to write a tweet thread about it.

I ended the thread by saying I’d love to make a comic about the defenestrated ground sloth.

You never know where opportunities will pop up and in this case, IGWS outreach coordinator Polly Root Sturgeon and assistant director of information services Gary Motz saw my tweets and we struck up a conversation about working together on a piece to accompany their exhibit. The end result was a new vector paleoart scene depicting two ground sloths in a Pleistocene Indiana woodland of spruce, beech, and hickory. I included many little environmental details, including some crinoid fossils in limestone slabs. Polly and Gary were wonderful to work with, providing excellent feedback along the way.

Vector paleoart illustration of Megalonyx jeffersonii in an ice age woodland

During my research and sketching phase of the project, a new paper was published shedding light on the phylogeny of the sloths. One insight was that the Ai, or maned sloth, is Megajeff’s closest living relative. It favors the foliage of the Cecropia tree, so I included a Cecropia moth as a nod to this evolutionary connection.

Since a second goal of the outreach work is to impress upon the public how important fossil collections are, Polly and Gary also commissioned a sticker design, using Megajeff as a sort of mascot for the preservation of scientific collections.

Sticker design of megajeff in a shield shape with text: "Protect Scientific Collections"
My Megajeff sticker design (along with a couple more awesome stickers given to me by Polly and Gary).

This was all a total treat to work on and I’m thrilled to have played a small part in helping educate my fellow Hoosiers about their natural heritage. To learn much more about Resurrecting Megajeff, be sure to visit the Indiana Geological and Water Survey’s website.

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