By Gary Every Special to the Crier
Sonoita, Arizona is a tiny town surrounded by grassy hills, cattle ranches, wineries and antelope galloping across the plains. Just south of town there is a small round hill that looks like any other hill except this one is hollow inside.
This is Dead Man’s Cave. As caves go, it is not especially big, deep or beautiful but what makes Dead Man’s Cave interesting is the paleontology. Dead Man’s Cave is filled with fossils.
While spelunking Dead Man’s Cave the flashlight shines across mud walls filled with bone fragments. All the bones date from the Pleistocene, which is the period of geology when the world was deep in the Ice Age.
Fossil skeletons of saber-toothed tigers and a rare prehistoric owl are only a few of the specimens that have been excavated from Dead Man’s Cave.
If Steven Spielberg knew about all the cool animals that roamed North America when the continent was filled with mega fauna he might have never made dinosaur movies.
There were mammoths and mastodons. A two hundred fifty pound tortoise roamed Arizona. There were several types of saber-toothed cats including the scimitar cat that specialized in hunting mammoths.
There was a North American lion that outweighed his present day African counterpart by hundreds of pounds. There were cheetahs here chasing the antelope and back in the Ice Age, there were several types of antelope including one that had four horns, one for each corner of its head, and a fifth horn that grew off its nose and forked.
There were camels and horses, both animals migrating the opposite way across the Bering Strait to Siberia. There were packs of hunting terror birds. There was a short faced bear that was much taller than today’s grizzly. There were long horned bison, tapirs and shrub ox.
There was also a giant ground sloth that stood upright maybe twelve feet tall, weighed nearly a ton and had claws almost a foot long. The giant ground sloths were herbivores. They grew so tall in order to grab the trees way up high.
They were strong so they could pull the tops of the trees down to their mouths and eat the tender shoots and leaves. It certainly did not hurt to be so big and strong in a land filled with lions, tigers, bears, cheetahs, jaguars, wolves and terror birds.
I read a paper by an archeologist who speculated that the giant ground sloths probably smelled bad. His reasoning was based on two premises. The much smaller slow moving sloths who still live in Central and South America are often covered with fungus and mold which gives them a rather unpleasant odor.
Biologists believe this makes them distasteful to predators. The archeologists other premise was based on excavating the hearth and homes of the Clovis men, the spear toting hunters who spread across the Americas like wildfire. The Clovis men were very successful and apparently very hungry. The bones of just about every Ice Age animal are found in their fire pits except for giant ground sloths. The archeologist speculated that maybe the giant ground sloths smelled bad and this is why the Clovis men never ate them.
So nothing ever ate the giant ground sloth? Nature doesn’t work like that. In the Rincon Mountains east of Tucson there is Colossal Cave a tourist trap famous for its beautiful stalactites and stolen stagecoach gold buried somewhere inside. What many people do not realize is there is a second cave in the area Arkenstone Cave that is filled with fossils. Two spelunkers were crawling deep inside this largely unexplored cave when they came upon a room filled with bat bones.
Upon closer inspection back at the lab, the scientists realized the prehistoric bat teeth had grooves. The grooves were for drinking blood. They had stumbled upon a room deep in this cave that had once been a home to prehistoric vampire bats! There were the bones of other animals in this room as well – giant ground sloths. There is only one other place in Arizona where fossilized vampire bat bones have been found and that is the Grand Canyon.
Once again, the vampire bats were sharing the cave with giant ground sloths. Apparently, there was indeed an Ice Age predator who fed from the giant ground sloths and it was the vampire bat.
There is an interesting lost treasure story associated with the vampire bat. There was a rumor circulating around that Father Kino paid for the building of the beautiful mission at San Xavier with a lucrative gold mine that was hidden nearby and since lost.
The gold mine is supposed to be somewhere in the Baboquivari Mountains and those who wish to discover the hiding place need only prowl around the rugged slopes of this sacred mountain on a full moon night and wait for scores of vampire bats to fly out of a remote cave.
This is the cave where the gold is located. It is protected by vampire bats. At least that is the legend and by the way, you might want to sleep with your windows closed tonight.
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