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California students find ancient sloth fossil


A rare fossilized bone from a giant ice age creature is now on display at the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History. KAZU's Jerimiah Oetting reports that the fossil was likely unearthed by intense rainstorms here in California last winter and then discovered by some very early career scientists.

JERIMIAH OETTING, BYLINE: Rider Antos isn't your typical paleontologist. He doesn't have a fancy degree - not yet, at least. He's 7 1/2 years old. Last spring, he and some other co-scientists in his kindergarten class were out in a creek near their school.

RIDER ANTOS: We were building a dam and looking for crawdads.

OETTING: ...When something caught their eye in the creek bed. Rider's classmate Joxan Mulry says right away, he thought it was a bone.

JOXAN MULRY: I thought it might have been a fossil.

OETTING: Now that fossil is finally on display in a glass case here at the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History. It's an arm bone belonging to a prehistoric sloth. Reddish in color, it almost looks like a piece of wood. Compared to modern-day sloths, this sloth was immense, about the size of an ox, weighing over 2,000 pounds. And the kids who found it are seeing it in the museum for the first time.

How do you guys feel knowing that you found this?



OETTING: A similar discovery happened last year, when a mastodon tooth was found on a beach near Santa Cruz. Wayne Thompson helped identify both fossils. He's a paleontologist who has worked in Santa Cruz for 47 years.

Why such amazing discoveries so close together?

WAYNE THOMPSON: (Laughter) That's a great question. When it rains, it pours.

OETTING: Literally - Thompson says last year's intense rain from atmospheric rivers in California led to erosion, which probably unearthed these prehistoric relics. Scientists haven't yet seen a signal that human-caused climate change is making atmospheric rivers worse, but they expect them to intensify as temperatures warm over time. Vincent Santucci is a senior paleontologist with the National Park Service, and he says that around the world, climate change is a double-edged sword for paleontologists. Sea level rise, hurricanes, wildfires and drought are all having an impact.

VINCENT SANTUCCI: It's rapidly eroding areas where fossils are at the surface, and we're losing things. It's also exposing new things, so it's leading to opportunities for new discoveries.

OETTING: Santucci says hurricanes on the Atlantic coast have exposed fossils of extinct long-nosed dolphins. In Arizona, as the Colorado River shrinks from drought and overuse, scientists are finding mammal-like reptile fossils that were once submerged. And at White Sands National Monument in New Mexico, where climate change has diminished the park's famous dunes, paleontologists discovered tens of thousands of fossilized footprints from ground sloths, mammoths and ancient humans. But there is a downside.

SANTUCCI: It's just frightening how quickly these footprints disappear once they're exposed.

OETTING: Santucci says paleontologists often have to hustle to preserve new discoveries as soon as they're revealed so they don't disappear.

SANTUCCI: Most of what is to be learned about the history of life is still out there, still preserved in Earth's sediments.

OETTING: Which is not lost on the students who found the sloth. Joxan Mulry says now that this year's storms have happened, they're hoping to find more of the ancient animal.

JOXAN: There's probably some new evidence that there's more...


JOXAN: ...Of the skeleton there.

OETTING: ...Just waiting to be found.

For NPR news, I'm Jerimiah Oetting in Santa Cruz.


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Jerimiah Oetting