After consulting the writing of a French naturalist to extrapolate the size and type of the animal from the size of its bones, Jefferson concluded that the Monroe County cave had contained the remains of a 5-foot-long cat that weighed an estimated 260 pounds. He told those at the conference that an Indian rock carving found near Point Pleasant bore the likeness of "a perfect figure of a lion" that may have roamed the region prior to the arrival of white settlers.
Jefferson delivered his presentation on the mysterious West Virginia creature on March 3, 1797, the day before his inauguration as vice president.
By 1799, when Jefferson published his observations on the creature in a scholarly journal, he had correctly concluded that the bones from the Monroe County cave were not those of a giant cat, but more likely came from a large type of sloth.
The sloth, as it turned out, weighed up to 800 pounds and when mature, was up to 10 feet in length. Its claws were likely used to tear off the tree branches and leaves it was believed to have relied on for nourishment. They roamed across much of North America, their fossilized remains turning up from West Virginia to Alaska.
While scientists later determined that Megalonyx jeffersoni, or Jefferson's ground sloth, as the creature was later named, became extinct about 10,000 years ago, Jefferson wasn't so sure. Early in his term as America's third president, Jefferson urged Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to be on the lookout for the creature as they explored the unmapped territory to the west during their Corps of Discovery exploration in 1804-06.
In 2008, West Virginia geologist Ray Garton led the successful effort to have Megalonyx jeffersoni be designated the state's official fossil.
Reach Rick Steelhammer at rsteelham...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5169.