Some colossal labyrinthine tunnelsover 10,000 years old, found in Brazil, have not been excavated by humans, but by a species that died out thousands of years ago according to scientists.
The caves are located in the south of the country and are known as “paleoburrows“. Interestingly, they were practically unknown until a Brazilian geologist notices something strange while driving on the highway.
Giant caves in southern Brazil
Henry Frankgeology professor, was traveling in his car when he noticed a hole on a mountain, on a construction site in the small town of Novo Hamburgo. Without hesitation, he approached the cavity, discovering that the tunnel had been discovered during the excavation.
Once he crawled inside he found he had a few 4.5 meters long. Frank, at first, was sure it was the work of some geological process, until he stumbled upon the last thing anyone wanted to find inside the unknown tunnel he had just entered: giant claw marks on the walls and the ceiling.
Years later, other paleoburrows were found in southern Brazil and a few more in other regions. However, the question was always present, who built them? The answer is, to say the least, equally surprising: giant sloths.
Claw marks on the walls. Credit: Heinrich Frank.
According to the researchers, these specimens were so big like modern African elephantsand they lived a few 10,000 years. Although other experts suggest the tunnels were created by extinct armadillos. However, most of the scientific community agrees that it was the giant sloths.
One of the massive ancient tunnels. Credit: Heinrich Frank.
Likewise, the mystery of the paleoterriers arises from their same geographical location, since they are found only in the southern states of Brazillike Rio Grande and Santa Catarina. Only a handful of tunnels have been discovered in the North and other South American countries. This indicates that sloths were limited to living in a very small area.
Currently, more than 1,500 of these tunnels are known.
He American Megatherium could measure 6 meters long and, unlike other ancient animals, it is one of the few of which there is certainty, both of its existence, and of the relationship with the current sloths.
In fact it was the same George Cuvierfather of paleontology, who assumed, contrary to his own initial theory, that unlike modern sloths, their claws were sappersdestined to dig the earth and, why not, the flesh of the enemy.
Problems with the theory
With this information, it’s possible that giant sloths are responsible for paleoburrows, but there are 3 hurdles to confirm the theory.
In the first place, there is no way to explain how a sloth could have dug hundreds of meters into the rocks to create the colossal tunnels, although there is a hypothetical explanation; team work. It was already theorized that megatherians and other giant sloths could live in large groups, collaborating with each other to dig. Although, according to experts, even this combined work does not seem to be enough, so it is believed that the work has been “inherited” for generations.
Illustration of a giant sloth with Pleistocene fauna. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
The second disadvantage lies in the need to create caves, why dig so many meters of tunnels? The ground already offered shelter without having to dig so much. The time invested in the work does not seem sufficient either, since an animal of such dimensions would need long to feed. Additionally, the ceilings and walls of many tunnels are polished, and very few such tunnels have been found in other countries where giant sloths inhabited.
Yet a third problem remains, and that is that giant sloths they weren’t natives from South America. The bulk of placental mammals, including our protagonists, inhabited the north of the continentbut during the creation of the continental bridge that united the Americas, the call “great american biotic exchange“.
Skeleton of an extinct giant sloth bear. Credit: Natural History Museum, London/Wikimedia Commons
So, if they weren’t from South America, why did they create paleoterriers there? It is believed that in North America they faced lands more difficult to work. Controversial assertion, since both sides of the continent have been shown to present varied terrain, moreover, to the south, excavation has been carried out very hard and difficult to break rocks.
There’s still no consensus on who really created the tunnels, but there’s no denying that it’s a magnificent piece of work. Whether it’s giant sloths or not, there’s no doubt that humans emulated this burrowing system to create their first habitations.
References: National Geographic / Infobae.
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