Where we are now (and Darwin’s sloth)

November 3, 2019 • 7:30 am

Yesterday was a port day in Puerto Natales, and was pretty quiet. Some passengers took off on a guided tour of the city, or to see the Cueva del Milodón Natural Monument, a cave where the bones (and skin!) of a extinct giant ground sloth were discovered. As Wikipedia notes:

The largest cave in the monument is the 200 metres (660 ft) long Milodón Cave. It was discovered in 1895 by Hermann Eberhard, German explorer of Patagonia. He found a large, seemingly fresh piece of skin of an unidentified animal. In 1896 the cave was explored by Otto Nordenskjöld and later it was recognized that the skin belonged to Mylodon – an extinct animal which died 10,200–13,560 years ago.

It’s not just Mylodon, but the scientific name is Mylodon darwini.  The “Darwin” bit comes from the fact that the first bones of this animal were found by Charles Darwin in 1832 on the Beagle expedition, embedded in a gravel cliff in Bahía Blanca, Argentina. From this fragment—a nearly complete lower jaw with teeth—paleontologist/biologist Richard Owen determined it was a giant ground sloth, naming it after his friend Darwin.

Here’s Darwin’s specimen, now residing in London’s Natural History Museum. You can see a 3-D image at the Museum’s site and read more about the specimen (and the species) here.

You can see the similarity to the mandible of the living two-toed sloth (image and caption from Science Photo Library). It’s clearly a herbivore, too, because the teeth are for nipping off vegetation and then grinding it with the back teeth:

Sloth mandible. Mandible (lower jaw) and teeth of a Linnaeus’s two-toed sloth (Choloepus didactylus), also known as the southern two-toed sloth or unau. This species is from South America. Its diet consists of leaves, twigs, and fruit.

Darwin himself recognized that the fossil jaw belonged to the same group as did modern sloths, and this recognition of the affinity between extinct and living creatures played a role, of course, in his theory of evolution. As he said in The Voyage of the Beagle:

“This wonderful relationship in the same continent between the dead and the living will, I do not doubt, hereafter throw more light on the appearance of organic beings on earth, and their disappearances from it.”

The giant ground sloths truly deserved their name: they were about as large as an elephant. Those in the genus Megatherium were among the largest land mammals that ever lived, measuring 6 meters from head to tail and weighing 4 tons. Here’s skeleton of a Megatherium from a Victorian print, and a reconstruction of Darwin’s specimen of Mylodon below:

Here’s Mylodon darwini. It wasn’t as big as Megatherium, but was still about 3 meters long and weighed between 1000 and 2000 kilograms:

Like their modern relatives, these group were herbivorous, dining on leaves and vegetation. The M. darwini specimen found in the local caves included, as I said, bones and fur, but also dung. Here’s some of the skin and fur found in the local Milodon Cave.

These animals went extinct about 12,000-10,000 years ago, so they were contemporaneous with humans, whose hunting may have helped reduce their numbers (the adult animals had no predators and were probably easy prey).

And here’s the 200-meter-long cave where the specimen was discovered:

We took our own self-guided perambulation around Puerto Natales, which is lovely and well-kept, but appears to cater largely to tourists, replete with expensive restaurants and souvenir shops. We were told that there were two good local brewpubs, but both were closed in the afternoon and our ship was scheduled to depart at 5 p.m. It turned out that the harbormaster refused to let our ship leave at that time because of high winds and waves, so we didn’t depart until some time after midnight. By then it was rainy and very windy (Puerto Natales is known for its winds, which can reach 100 mph), so we didn’t venture out for brewskis.

And now we’re steaming through the Patagonian fjords, late again and therefore unable to make a scheduled landing on Cape Horn, the southernmost tip of South America. I think the passengers are restive because several stops have been canceled due to technical problems and weather: the ship’s bar yesterday evening was packed.

The ship’s locator map shows us not far from Puerto Natales, and we’ll have to wait a bit later to go through another narrows (we can’t traverse narrows unless there is “slack water“: the interval between tides when there is little movement of water).

And a zoomed-out view. I’ll be heading back to Antarctica but then to the Falkland Island on the second part of this journey.

More later.

43 thoughts on “Where we are now (and Darwin’s sloth)

  1. It’s understandable that weather is a big factor. The area is bound to inflict delays.
    What a wonderful find was the M. darwini! Skin, fur and all! Incredible. And to think, our ancestors probably hunted it and precipitated it’s extinction (a process we seem to be pretty good at).

  2. Ever since childhood, extinct megafauna have always tickled my imagination. Too bad we humans have never been good at preserving anything but ourselves.

    1. “never been good at preserving anything but ourselves.”

      And who knows how long we will last…in a dead world?

  3. The shipboard Panomax 360 LINK is up & running again – since shortly after leaving the dock at Puerto Natales – not much to see right now – just water & rain mist & that will probably be the case for days. The boat is now in a nice wide, straight channel & heading south east at 15 knots in near gale conditions. Up-to-date sat map here:


      1. I see from Panomax it’s pretty grim – rain & dark clouds. They’ve got a 33 mph near gale blowing onto their starboard side from the Pacific so they’re sailing across the waves too. I do wonder how well the stabilisers work under such conditions.

          1. I had a look at shipping line Hurtigruten’s food/booze pricing the other day & it’s on the oil-rich Norwegian model while sailing in Norwegian waters – I have no idea what they do when on the other side of the world, but in home waters you’d better bring your own supplies or become a cabin moonshiner [ex-cons should start an online course]. You’re allowed to bring 1.5 litres of wine aboard for cabin consumption only – that’s two bottles. Bottle of wine bought on board $50 [the reviewer didn’t say what wine though]. You can buy “packages” that include booze & food, but not unlimited – two x 0.4 litre glasses of wine per day in the restaurant is a typical “package”. Do they give you booze tickets or ask to see your cabin card key? QUOTE:

            The following beverages are complimentary with full-board service: Breakfast — coffee, tea, selected juices, tap water; Lunch — coffee, tea; Dinner — coffee, tea (served after dinner).

            Beverage packages are available for purchase; we offer a Water Package, Coffee/Tea Package, Wine Package and Beer Package.

            As for the wines, for a variety of reasons the Norwegian government implements punitive taxes on alcohol and controls the pricing and distribution of these products centrally. The prices of wine and other spirits are typically four times higher than those found in Canada and the USA.

            The wines we serve on board are available at the same cost as those in the government-controlled “Vinmonopolet” (wine monopoly). We do not mark up our wines. But we do allow up to two bottles of wine per person of legal drinking age to be brought on board, without any fees. Most cruise lines do not allow wine to be brought on board without a corkage fee.

            For the comfort, safety and enjoyment of other guests, we do not allow the wine to be brought into the dining area; passengers may enjoy the wine in their cabins.

            Hurtigruten is not a traditional cruise line. We transport locals and tourists by themselves or with their cars for short voyages as well as on longer stays of up to 12 days. Depending on the length of stay, not all guests want the meal service.

            We operate the dining service like a typical European restaurant. While there is a small charge for water, tipping is not required, since our Norwegian staff are being paid proper wages in compliance with the high standards of the country.

            Tipping is almost always mandatory with traditional cruise lines, so. . . we do feel it would be best to compare our per diem (with extras) to other lines of similar quality.

            It’s enough to drive a man to drink! SOURCE The restaurant food looks great though – there’s two restaurants I think from memory, one of which is fine dining – haven’t checked how well my memory stands up on this.

            1. Excuse me. I’d like another glass of that lovely Bordeaux please.

              I’m terribly sorry sir, but that will be $15 US.

              Oh, never mind. I’ll just sniff the empty bottle for a time and then go to bed. By the by, when do we next dock?

              1. Yeah. Make firm on-board friends with evil teetotallers [Trump is one] & use them as booze mules at each port of call.

                Come to think of it, if I could bear the cultural desert that is Villa Puerto Edén, that would be an ideal place to set up a liqueur & souvenirs store. The souvenirs, naturally, would be examples of local, traditional wood carving of a sorta barrel-shaped nature with castor wheels & an extensible handle – like travel luggage, but with a mysterious tap at the bottom.

              2. Ha,ha,ha,ha,ha,ha…I can’t stop…ha, ha, ha, he, he, he, he…mysterious tap at the bottom…ha, ha…

              3. I’m terribly sorry sir, but that will be $15 US.

                That’d be about a half-pint, if they’re charging Norwegian domestic prices. There’s a good reason that the streets of Aberdeen get a lot of Norwegian (and Swedish) shoppers at this time of year.
                If they re-supply the ship locally, there’s no need to charge that highly. But they will.

            2. cabin moonshiner [ex-cons should start an online course]

              “flash” is the name used the world over by industrious engineers on “dry” ships since the 1950s (from people I’ve talked to).
              4 hours travel time each way to a drink seller seems to be about the limit that people working 12 hour shifts are willing to undertake.

              1. LOL. The British navy, in 1970, ended the time honored tradition of providing an dram of rum per day per sailor. I hope they now provide, at least, a cup of coco and a coloring book to pass the time.

              2. There are punishments in the navy for running a still. The people who did it were lucky to get off with a dishonourable discharge without time in prison. Considerably more severe than the civilian punishments.

              3. AFAIK every deep water RN vessel of reasonable size, still has a bar for the ordinary sailors & ward rooms/messes for the senior NCOs & officers. The newest RN carrier has a PUB called The Queen’s Head! It was installed by Wiltshire brewers Wadworth in the senior NCOs’ mess. Stilling waiting for most of the expensive F-35 ‘planes, but got the hospitality sorted.

                I remember when USS Nimitz [nuclear powered aircraft carrier] docked in Liverpool for a goodwill visit [somewhere in the years ’78 to ’81] & the pubs were flooded by sailors & Marines not able to hold their booze. The Marines were absolutely huge – even the shorties were pumped up from the weight lifting/body culture that obsesses US military for some reason. Protein shake warriors. Big, generous spenders though – lots of Scousers claiming to be mates with McCartney etc.

  4. It turned out that the harbormaster refused to let our ship leave at that time because of high winds and waves, so we didn’t depart until some time after midnight. By then it was rainy and very windy (Puerto Natales is known for its winds, which can reach 100 mph) …

    Seems a place to put to the test the seamanship of a vessel’s pilot.

    1. As I recall, the captain of the Exon Valdez was plastered before he turned the ship over to a subordinate. Also, Exxon Shipping Company failed to properly maintain the Raytheon Collision Avoidance System radar. It’s usually a chain of failures that lead to catastrophe. Not a single event. I’m not saying this is the situation here. Just that, there are precedents for ill fortune at sea based on human frailty.

      1. Yeah, I think it’s usually a chain of escalating mistakes that leads to most naval (and air) accidents, Rick.

        My point here is merely that, with the high winds, rough seas, and narrow channels that can be traversed only at slack tide, navigating the South American fjords seems somewhat trickier than other coastal navigation.

        1. Very likely true, although in some cases I suspect the land areas may protect ships from storms. Mini-harbors everywhere.

  5. an extinct animal which died 10,200–13,560 years ago.

    Very shortly after a certain modified African ape arrived. Coincidence? I rather doubt it.
    Not that I’d like to take on one of the adults. But you don’t need to kill the adults to achieve extinction (deliberately or accidentally) – just distract the adults and kill the juveniles.

    1. Good point. By whatever means, late hominids were pretty clever and would likely find a way to destroy their own livelihood via extinctions. Then they discovered agriculture.

      1. When humans discovered agriculture, two things universally happened : the quality of nutrition went down, and the period between pregnancies went down too. Pretty much everything follows from that.

          1. Indeed.

            “Every loaf of bread is a sad story about grains that could have been turned into beer, but weren’t.”

  6. paleontologist/ biologist Richard Owen determined it was a giant ground sloth, naming it after his friend Darwin.

    The two hated each other with a passion, by all accounts. They may have been icily polite in public (Darwin was never the most “clubbable” of men after his return to Britain) and in writing – which is normally a pretty good sign of deep loathing.

      1. Just ever so slightly. FitzRoy was terrified/ repelled by it too. Darwin had plenty of reasons to hesitate before publishing. If he had any doubt, the vilification heaped on the anonymous author of Vestiges left him with no doubts.

          1. Darwin mentioned the effect the publication and subsequent outcry had in his diaries and letters. The effect was, as desired by the hounders and scum of religion, very chilling.
            The author was very wise to maintain his anonymity for a considerable period.

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