West Virginia Department of Commerce A Founding Father’s Fossil

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A Founding Father’s Fossil

 West Virginia Facts

A Founding Father’s Fossil
By E. Ray Garton 

Most West Virginians are familiar with some of our state’s official symbols: the state bird, animal, and flower, for example. But fewer may know that West Virginia also has an official state fossil.  Our fossil offers not only a fascinating history and science lesson but also provides a new link between the Mountain State and one of America’s founding fathers.

In 1796, wealthy western Virginia pioneer John Stewart sent several large bones to his friend Thomas Jefferson at Monticello.  The bones, reportedly found by saltpeter miners in a cave located in today’s Greenbrier County, West Virginia, consisted of a hand with claws and a lower arm (ulna and radius).

Jefferson's interest in fossils and natural history led him to scientifically describe the bones. In 1797, in a presentation before the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Jefferson identified the fossil as the bones of a giant lion. He called the animal Megalonyx, meaning “great claw.”

Shortly before his presentation, however, Jefferson had read a short paper written in 1796 by Georges Cuvier. Cuvier was the founder of the fields of vertebrate paleontology and comparative anatomy, and one of the most influential naturalists and zoologists of the time. In his paper, Cuvier described the bones of an animal found in Paraguay. He called the bones, which looked remarkably like Jefferson’s bones, Megatherium because he believed they belonged to a giant ground sloth. Jefferson thus noted at the end of his presentation to the American Philosophical Society that his bones may also be those of Megatherium.  

In 1799, Jefferson’s talk to the society, titled “A Memoir of the Discovery of certain Bone of a Quadruped of the Clawed Kind in the Western Parts of Virginia,” was published in Volume 4, Number 30 of Transactions of the American Philosophical Society. That same year, another paper describing Jefferson’s fossil was published in the same journal. The second paper, written by Casper Wistar, a prominent physician and anatomist, was titled “A description of the Bones deposited by the President, in the Museum of the Society, and represented in the annexed plates.” 

In his paper, Wistar named the bones Megalonyx jeffersonii in honor of Jefferson. At the time, Jefferson served as president of the American Philosophical Society. He would not become our nation’s third president until 1801. Jefferson’s and Wistar’s papers were the first and second scientific papers ever published on fossils in the United States.

It was ultimately determined that Megalonyx jeffersonii is an extinct species of Pleistocene (Ice Age) ground sloth, not a great lion, as Jefferson had belived. The animal was more than eight feet tall standing erect. A large adult could weigh 1,000 pounds. The head of Megalonyx was small compared to its body, and the teeth were large, square, and peglike.  

Megalonyx had large claws on its hands and feet, which it used for digging and hooking branches and leaves. This animal did not climb trees like modern day sloths; rather, it likely tore at them and pushed them down.  

Though Jefferson’s bones were long thought to have been found in a cave in Greenbrier County, exhaustive research conducted by Smithsonian paleontologist Fred Grady proved that the bones were, in fact, found in a cave in Monroe County.  Once the actual cave that Jefferson’s bones came from was confirmed, an exploration of it led to the discovery of an additional bone, which had been missed by miners more than 200 years ago. This bone, a scapula, was recently Carbon 14 dated at more than 35,960 years old. 

In 2008, the state legislature passed a resolution declaring Megalonyx jeffersonii the official state fossil of West Virginia. Lawmakers, as well as scientists and historians, hope that the designation will promote greater study of and interest in geology, paleontology, and American and West Virginia history among students and other residents of the state.

Jefferson's original Megalonyx bones are held in the collections of the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Replicas of the bones, including a replica skull of Megalonyx, are on display at the West Virginia Geological & Economic Survey Museum, located at the Mont Chateau Research Center in Morgantown.

The West Virginia Geological & Economic Survey Museum features dinosaur bones, rocks, minerals, and fossils from across West Virginia and around the world. It is the only museum of its kind in the state. In fact, the museum has the only real dinosaur skeleton in the state.  The replicas of the Thomas Jefferson fossil significantly enhance the museum exhibits and provide even greater educational resources to state residents and other visitors. 
To visit the museum, take Exit 10 off I-68 and turn left onto Rt. 43. Take the first exit to Rt. 857 South. Follow the signs at the old bridge across Cheat Lake. Hours are Monday through Friday, 8:00 AM to 5:00 PM.

For more information, go to www.wvgs.wvnet.edu or call 304.594.2331. Learn more about Thomas Jefferson and his fossils at www.ansp.org and www.Lewis-Clark.org

Curator of the West Virginia Geological & Economic Survey Museum in Morgantown, E. Ray Garton wrote the legislation and spearheaded efforts to designate Megalonyx jeffersonii as West Virginia’s official state fossil. If you think you have found an interesting fossil in West Virginia, contact Ray at curator@prehistoricplanet.com and he will help you identify it. 

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