St. Philip High School students Ellie Stewart, Maggie Hill and Abby Hill were working on a physics project last spring. They spotted two large bones in a bin near their workstation. There was an inscription, “Billy found 1955 Ark.” They asked their science teacher Stephanie Halbert a question.
“What are these?”
The bones predated Ms. Halbert’s time at St. Philip, so she posed a question back.
“Do you want to find out?”
The students named the bones “J.A.M.E.S.”, using the first initial of each investigative team member: Maggie, Abby, Ellie, then-senior Joshua Klavinski, and Stephanie Halbert. They thought the bones might be from an elephant.
Ms. Halbert contacted Laura Abraczinskas, Michigan State University Museum Vertebrate Collections Manager. The museum had elephant bones on display. On April 14th, J.A.M.E.S. and his team went to East Lansing.
“Ellie went into the elephant exhibit and compared our bones, and they were obviously different,” Maggie said.
Ms. Abraczinskas referred the team to the University of Michigan, which had mammoth remains. Ms. Halbert sent pictures to mammoth specialist Dr. Adam Rountrey, Research Museum Collections Manager at U of M’s Museum of Paleontology. Dr. Rountrey thought it might be from a cow, but Ms. Halbert, having grown up on a dairy farm, disagreed.
Summer came and went. The team reassembled in September, this time as an official science club. One of the new members, Miklo Hernandez-Mendez, discovered the bones fit together.
“I saw there was a connection,” Miklo said. “One was in, and one was sticking out.”
The team sent new pictures to Dr. Rountrey, who wanted to see the bones for himself.
On October 21st, the science club took J.A.M.E.S. to U of M, where it proved bigger than the mammoth bones.
Dr. Rountrey wondered if it could be from the tail of a glyptodont, an ancestor of an armadillo, or a ground sloth. He took 3D scans of J.A.M.E.S., which are now part of the University of Michigan Online Repository of Fossils. He sent the scans to Dr. H. Greg McDonald, an expert on sloths.
“The coolest part was seeing Dr. Rountrey excited about it,” Ellie said.
A few weeks later, Dr. McDonald confirmed that J.A.M.E.S. is from a Harlan’s Ground Sloth, easily over 11,000 years old.
“This has been one of the most interesting identifications with which I have been involved,” Dr. Rountrey said. “It’s the kind of ‘attic discovery’ kids dream of finding.”
The answer led to another question. Where was J.A.M.E.S. found?
If the bones are from Arkansas, it would be the first evidence of ground sloths in that state. If the bones are from Michigan, it would be the first evidence of ground sloths in the Great Lakes region.
Regardless of where he hails from, J.A.M.E.S. will now call Ann Arbor home.
“We do not have a sacrum from any ground sloth, so it would be an important addition to the collection,” Dr. Rountrey said.
The team will deliver J.A.M.E.S. to U of M in a formal ceremony this winter. The exhibit will include a plaque naming St. Philip High School as the donor.
“It started with one thing, and we got to see it evolve into something much bigger,” Maggie said. “It’s nice to know other people will see [these bones] and know St. Philip did this.”