By Lesley Parilla, Field Book Project Cataloger
|A. Remington Kellogg on a Field Trip in Arizona. Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 9516, Box 1, Watson M. Perrygo Oral History Interviews. 84-8990.|
When I began my work in the Department of Paleobiology, my department contact was kind enough to show me some of the specimens relating to the first field book collection I would catalog. I was to begin with the field books of A. Remington Kellogg (1892-1969) [link], an intriguing figure, who has a substantial history with the Smithsonian Institution. He eventually became the Director of the U.S. National Museum and Assistant Secretary of the Smithsonian from 1958 to 1962.
The specimens in question need little introduction and are eye-catching to say the least—they were 100,000 year old dung specimens from ground sloths. They are the result of Kellogg’s field work at Rampart Cave in Arizona during 1942, towards the end of his career in the field. I cataloged his work chronologically, so the related field book was the last one I described. This meant, to my delight, I had some time to do a little digging into the story behind this unique specimen.
Scat can be a wonderful source of information on wildlife and its environment. I was excited to learn more about the related field work and, as I looked into the history of what was recorded in Kellogg’s documentation, the story turned out to be more nuanced than I expected.
When Kellogg went to Rampart Cave to study sloth fossils and skeletal remains of other wildlife in the area, he was accompanied by Watson M. Perrygo [link]. Perrygo was a taxidermist with the Museum but also collected extensively in the field with Smithsonian staff.
I learned quickly that Kellogg had a terse style of recording and usually included only information that strictly related to his work. Therefore, the field book content offers little information about personal difficulties or challenges he might have faced at the time. Perrygo, on the other hand, generously gave his time for an oral history interview on Rampart Cave with Pan Henson, Smithsonian’s Senior Historian. And it was through a conversation with Pam Henson that I learned that both Kellogg and Perrygo suffered from a serious respiratory infection during their work in Rampart Cave.
In the interview, Watson Perrygo explained that staff working at the site experienced breathing problems from the onset of field work. They began to use respirators, but their equipment did little to help the situation. In spite of these challenges Perrygo stated:
“What we did was just a drop in the bucket. We took several squares, five foot square samples. But it should be eventually finished, that might take. Someday some young, upcoming scientist, full of ambition, what have you, will go there, and then I hope he'll find some marvelous stuff, and he probably will. But when you go in the cave, you think any minute you’re going to meet a sloth coming around the corner. You really would—just the rocks, the parts where they rubbed on, and the manure allover just like it was just a couple days old lying all over the place. It's fantastic; I mean, you just think any minute they're going to walk right in—just meet one face to face.”
Though Kellogg did not record information about his personal health, the travel details that he recorded in detail make it clear that work at the site was a anything but easy. And at last, towards the end of the field book, Kellogg included a telling figure: he estimated that 2,650 cubic feet of sloth dung had been excavated during the 26 days of work.
As for the rest of story…
During my research I found out a little more about the value of the sloth scat specimens. In 1976, Rampart Cave caught fire. According to a New York Times Article (March 11, 1977 by Boyce Rensberger) the cave, which was noted to be “one of the world’s richest known sources of fossils and other evidence of life in the ice age,” smoldered for months. National Park Service staff eventually decided to seal off the cave in an attempt to extinguish the fire by cutting off oxygen, after finding that using water weakened the limestone ceiling of the cave. The specimen damage was extensive. According to a 1992 article in the American Society of Parasitologists, two thirds of the speciments were destroyed by the fire.
It may appear to be “only” animal scat, but it is in fact a rich source of information on Ice Age life, an item that people risked their health to collect and their lives to save from destruction, and a specimen that is all the more precious because of the loss of its place of origin.