Slow on the heels of last year’s mammoth-naming contest, the Nevada State Museum in Las Vegas is looking for a cool new handle for its giant ice age sloth. “Pokey” springs to mind.
To celebrate National Fossil Day on Oct. 16, the museum at the Springs Preserve is holding its second annual Name the Fossil Contest, this time for its 9-foot-tall skeleton of an extinct Shasta ground sloth.
The sloth joined the museum’s collection in 1995, five years after some hikers found it in a cave near Devil Peak, northwest of Primm.
Sali Underwood, the museum’s curator of natural history, called the specimen the most complete skeleton of a giant sloth anywhere in the Southwest.
“She is amazing,” Underwood said.
That’s right, she.
Researchers believe the female sloth lived about 32,000 years ago and most likely died when she fell into the cave where her bones were found. Her fossilized skeleton was discovered lying on its right side, head pointed north, with about 60 percent of the bones intact.
The display at the museum is actually a cast of the real fossils, with the blanks filled in using casts of bones from other, similar sloths.
The bear-sized creature sits upright on her hind legs with her long arms and claws extended menacingly, but she wouldn’t have posed much of a threat to anything other than a yucca or a Joshua tree. Researchers have a pretty good idea what the herbivore ate, Underwood said. “The reason we know this is we found sloth poop.”
Museum director Dennis McBride said naming creatures in the collection helps drum up interest in natural history and forge “a more intimate relationship” between the museum and the people it serves. Also, it’s fun, he said.
A valley fifth-grader named Hagop Maknissian came up with the winning name in last year’s contest: Christopher Columbian Mammoth.
The museum began accepting sloth names last week in person at the front desk, via the museum’s Facebook page and by email to curator of education Stacy Irvin at email@example.com.
Underwood said Sid, the name of the sloth from the “Ice Age” movies, is dominating the entries so far.
Submissions will be accepted until 5 p.m. Sept. 30, when museum curators will pick their three favorites. Final voting will take place Oct. 10 through Oct. 21, and the winner will be announced Oct. 26.
In addition to being immortalized on a permanent naming plaque, the winner gets a family museum membership, a behind-the-scenes tour of the collection and a plush version of a modern-day sloth.
If this year’s contest is a success, the public could be asked to name other animals at the museum, including its ice age horse and its replica of Nevada’s state fossil, a giant dinosaur fish known as an ichthyosaur.
Underwood thinks they can keep this going for a while.
“We’ve got a fair amount of stuff to name. It might get down to the brachiopods, but they deserve names too,” she said.
A brachiopod, by the way, is a bivalve filter-feeding marine animal like a clam, which has been found in Nevada fossilized in rock formations dating back roughly 400 million years. But you can call it “Shelly.”
Contact reporter Henry Brean at hbrean @reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0350.