On Mother’s Day 2022, Kevin Adkins brought home a truly remarkable gift. Adkins, a resident of Red House in Putnam County, stumbled upon an ancient relic while turkey hunting with his father-in-law on a cool, clear morning.
“We had gone out that morning to wait for the sunrise in the hollows where we were hunting,” says Adkins. The duo had a lead on a hen and gobbler, but the birds trailed off, sending Adkins and his father-in-law further down the hollow.
As they walked down the main creek channel, they noticed massive amounts of debris piled up along the creek, remnants of a flash flood that ripped through the area two days before. Adkins noticed an object that looked like a giant root ball among the creek gravel. “It still had a bunch of mud and everything on it—and then I realized it had teeth,” he says.
Adkins, who started turkey hunting in high school, is used to finding deer and cow skulls in the woods. Upon picking up the 16-inch long, toothed skull, he discovered that it weighed about 30 pounds. He peeled off some of the mud, but still couldn’t tell which animal the skull belonged to. With piqued curiosity, he set the skull aside so he could retrieve it after wrapping up his hunting trip. “I was just thinking about it the whole time because I’ve seen a bunch of different types of skulls, but there was something different about it,” he says.
When Adkins returned to the skull, he washed it off in the creek, thinking it was from a pig, cow, or even a prehistoric animal. “I realized how stuck some of the clay was in the skull. It even had gravel embedded in the roof of the mouth. As I cleaned off the top of the nose area, I could see something that looked like hair that was matted down, but it almost looked fossilized.”
Adkins told his father-in-law he thought the skull was older than anything he had found before and decided to take it home. As Adkins hiked out of the woods with the skull in the back of his turkey vest, he started searching the internet for images of cow, horse, and pig skulls—none of them matched. He expanded his search to a bison, young mammoth, and even a walrus, since the skull appeared to have tusk holes.
When Adkins and his father-in-law returned home, they enlisted the help of their family members and posted a photo of the skull on social media in the hopes of confirming an identification. By Sunday evening, they had eliminated all the modern-day animal species as well as the more recently extinct animals.
Then his dad mentioned the giant ground sloth, which Adkins considered previously but ruled out due to differences in the number of teeth and shape of the cheek bones. “I started looking into it a bit deeper, seeing skulls very similar to the one I had,” says Adkins. But those minor differences prevented him from confirming an identification.
On Monday morning over a cup of coffee, Adkins’s wife recommended he call the West Virginia Geological Survey in Morgantown. Over the phone, Adkins explained that he wanted to get in contact with someone who could verify the identification of what he believed was a giant ground sloth skull. He was connected to a doctor at the geological survey who reached out to Gregory McDonald, a paleontologist based in Colorado who is a ground sloth expert. After seeing Adkins’s photos, McDonald confirmed that the skull was from the Jefferson’s ground sloth, Megalonyx jeffersonii.
The Jefferson’s ground sloth, which was native to North America, lived from about 5 million to 11,000 years ago during the Pliocene and Pleistocene epochs. These hairy sloths grew 8–10 feet in length and weighed 2,200–2,400 pounds, subsisting on leaves, twigs, and possibly nuts in forests and woodlands. This species had the broadest range of all the North American ground sloths, based on fossils recovered at sites across the United States, northwestern Canada, and western Mexico, until it went extinct toward the end of the Pleistocene epoch.
Megalonyx jeffersonii was named after Thomas Jefferson, who investigated fossil bones from a ground sloth recovered in the 1790s from a cave in what is now Monroe County, WV. He named the animal “Megalonyx,” which means “giant claw,” before he realized it was a sloth and not a giant cat. He presented his research on Megalonyx to the American Philosophical Society in 1797, spawning the field of vertebrate paleontology in North America. More than two centuries later, Megalonyx jeffersonnii was designated the state fossil of West Virginia.
Since making his discovery, Adkins has been working with researchers to uncover more about these ancient mammals. He plans on searching for additional fossil bones so scientists can perform carbon dating and extract DNA without compromising the extremely well-preserved skull. According to Adkins, someone from the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh told him the condition of the skull rivals anything the museum currently has for the ground sloth.
Adkins also plans to collect soil samples that can be analyzed to learn more about the environment. “The geography of our area has always fascinated me because of the Teays River and the lakes that were here before the last ice age,” says Adkins. “Hopefully when we get the age of the skull, we’ll be able to place the sloth into that timeline. It makes me a little giddy to be honest with you.” To stay up to date on this sloth’s epic journey, check out Adkins’s public Facebook page here.