Fossil Friday – sloth vertebra

Paramylodon harlani (1)One of the most enjoyable things about writing this blog is that I have the chance to learn about the anatomy of animals that are relatively unfamiliar to me. While I’ve done a little work on sloths in the past, their somewhat unusual skeletal anatomy can be tricky for someone who has mostly worked on other animals.

Sloths and their relatives have unique articulation features (the xenarthrous processes) in their posterior thoracic and lumbar vertebrae. In order to understand these better, I asked Darla, the WSC Collections Manager, to search our collections database for lumbar vertebrae from our most common sloth, Paramylodon harlani. It turns out that, according to the database, we only have one reasonably well preserved Paramylodon lumbar that isn’t already on exhibit, and she pulled that specimen out for me to examine. Shown above is the anterior view, and below is posterior:

Paramylodon harlani

The vertebra isn’t complete. The entire neural spine is missing, as are the posterior articular surfaces (the postzygopophyses), and there is damage to the centrum. The transverse processes are also broken off, as is more apparent in right lateral view:

Paramylodon harlani (3)

In dorsal view (below) two big anterior troughs are visible. These would have articulated with the postzygopophyses of the vertebra in front of this one.

Paramylodon harlani (2)

I struggled for some time trying to understand this vertebra. I was completely unable to locate the xenarthrous processes, and the transverse processes made no sense when I compared this specimen to a cast Paramylodon lumbar vertebra. After spending some time with references, especially Stock (1925), I figured out why I was having such difficulties; the vertebra is not a lumbar, but is in fact a caudal (tail) vertebra that was misidentified on the label! This is pretty easy to spot when compared to dorsal view figures of Paramylodon caudals from Stock:

Paramylodon

To my chagrin, once I finally realized this was a caudal vertebra, I saw that there were plenty of indicators I had overlooked (like articulations for the haemal arches) that should have told me right away that this was a caudal. But starting with the assumption that it was a lumbar made it slower for me to to recognize contrary data for what it was.

I should also note that, while misidentifications do occasionally slip into databases, or even publications (I’ve done that too!), it’s not as common as you might think. The Diamond Valley Lake collections are, in my opinion, extremely well identified. I’ve now looked in some detail at more than a thousand different bones and teeth in the DVL collection. This vertebra is only the third instance in which I’ve disagreed with the initial identification. There have also been at least four other instances where I thought there was a misidentification, but closer examination convinced me that the original ID was correct. This constant reevaluation and self-correction is at the core of scientific methodology, and is what makes it such a powerful tool for understanding the world.

Reference:

Stock, C. 1925. Cenozoic Gravigrade Edentates of Western North America with Special Reference to the Pleistocene Megalonychinae and Mylodontidae of Rancho La Brea. Carnegie Institute of Washington Publication 331, 206 p., 47 pls.

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