'Death Pit' Reveals Giant Sloths May Have Died From Poopy Water

Ice Age graveyard contained 22 giant sloths preserved in their own poop.
Derya Ozdemir
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A long, long time ago, during the Ice Age, a bunch of giant sloths met their collective end after, possibly, swallowing their own feces in a contaminated pool of shallow water, in what is now known as Santa Elena peninsula in Ecuador, according to paleontologists from the U.S. and Ecuador.

Scientists discovered the skeletons of at least 22 Panamerican ground sloths, known as Eremotherium laurillardi, some 20,000 years later. The findings suggested they all died around the same time, and their remains were found in what is now a tar pit.  


Not like the sloths you know

The remains were found in Tanque Loma paleontological site, known as Arroyo Seco. 20,000 years ago, this place was a dense marshland.

Remains of the 15 adult, five juvenile, and two newborn Ice Age sloths, which were pretty different from the modern sloths that we all know and love, were examined. These creatures with giant bones could walk fast on two legs and an adult male could grow as big as the size of an elephant. 

'Death Pit' Reveals Giant Sloths May Have Died From Poopy Water
Source: NHMLAC

Questionable plant remains

The archeologists discovered "an abundance of tiny, broken-up plant remains," which, accordingly, was smaller than the distance between the ridges of the ancient sloths' teeth.

'Death Pit' Reveals Giant Sloths May Have Died From Poopy Water
Source: NHMLAC

This is the reason why scientists think the plants came from the animals' feces, and thus, contaminating the drinking water and killing them. Having suffered toxic poisoning, the sloths were coated in seeping asphalt by the time. 

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Microfauna-rich sediments are remarkable

Moreover, the new research unearthed not only the story of the giant sloths, but also the multiple layers of "microfauna-rich sediments" which form about a meter above the asphaltic megafauna deposit.

Down in these microscopic levels of analysis scientists can study the thousands of remains discovered at the site. In a mail to Gizmodo, Emily Lindsey, who is the study’s lead author, assistant curator and excavation site director, said, "There are many more studies that are waiting to be done with this remarkable assemblage, like looking at how these giant sloths grew, types of pathologies, and more radiocarbon dating of the deposit."

She added, "But one of the most intriguing aspects of the site for me are the layers of microfauna-rich sediments a meter or so above the asphaltic megafauna deposit; these contain thousands of bones of small birds, lizards, snakes, and rodents that have real potential to tell a story of past environmental change in this region.”

The study has been published in the journal Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology.