Giant Glyptodon Emerges in Exley Science Center

Joel LaBella, facility manager for the Earth and Environmental Sciences Department; Bruce Strickland, Instrument maker specialist; Jim Zareski, research assistant/lab manager for the Earth and Environmental Sciences Department; Freeman Scholar Yu Kai Tan '20; Freeman Scholar Andy Tan '21; Ellen Thomas, the Harold T. Stearns Professor of Integrative Sciences; Annie Burke, chair and professor of biology; and David Strickland, instrument maker.

The Glyptodon, a giant fossil cast that has been in storage since 1957, is now on display in Exley Science Center. Several members of the Wesleyan community helped install the 8-foot-long cast on Feb. 26. Pictured, from left, are Joel LaBella, facility manager for the Earth and Environmental Sciences Department; Bruce Strickland, Instrument maker specialist; Jim Zareski, research assistant/lab manager for the Earth and Environmental Sciences Department; Freeman Scholar Yu Kai Tan ’20; Freeman Scholar Andy Tan ’21; Ellen Thomas, the Harold T. Stearns Professor of Integrative Sciences; Annie Burke, chair and professor of biology; and David Strickland, instrument maker. Glyptodon means “grooved or carved tooth” in Greek. The creature lived approximately 2 million to 10,000 years ago.

The Glyptodon as seen from the front (upper) and back (lower) in its glory days, when it was displayed in the Orange Judd Museum of Natural Sciences, before 1957. Note the skull and hind left foot present, and the armored tail visible from the rear. Copy of 1876 advertisement by Ward, dated 1876, in which he names ‘the Wesleyan University of Middletown, Conn.’, as having purchased a number of his ‘Casts of celebrated Fossils’.

Prior to 1957, the Glyptodon was displayed in the Orange Judd Museum of Natural Sciences. Pictured in the center is an 1876 Ward advertisement, in which he names “the Wesleyan University of Middletown, Conn.” as having purchased a number of his “casts of celebrated fossils.”

For the past 60 years, a massive megafauna mammal thrived in crates buried in Wesleyan’s tunnels and attics. This month, the creature, known as a Glyptodon, has emerged in Exley Science Center for public viewing.

Although the armored armadillo-like animal became extinct more than 10,000 years ago, Wesleyan acquired a fossil cast in the 1870s, where it became a showpiece at the university’s Orange Judd Museum of Natural Sciences.

In 1957, the museum closed and thousands of artifacts, including the Glyptodon, were haphazardly stuffed into crates and boxes and hauled to multiple locations throughout campus.

“After the museum closed, everything was scattered all over, anywhere there was a place to put it,” said Ellen Thomas, the Harold T. Stearns Professor of Integrative Sciences and research professor of earth and environmental sciences. “Just recently, we’ve started to uncover all these lost treasures and we’re working to get them organized and cataloged. The Glyptodon is one of our major finds.”

While searching the tunnels underneath the Foss student residences, the group encountered graffiti lettering reading, “Clobbersaurus was here." Underneath was a wooden pallet box containing the Glyptodon‘s shell replica.

While searching the tunnels underneath the Foss student residences, the group encountered graffiti lettering reading “Clobbersaurus was here.” Underneath was a wooden pallet box containing the Glyptodon‘s shell replica.

In June 2017, Thomas and her students started their own investigation into Wesleyan’s lost artifacts. While rummaging through Exley Science Center’s “penthouse”—or the attic on the 7th floor—the group discovered a human skeleton cast, more than 50 fossilized fish casts, crocodile teeth, an extinct marine reptile that resembled a dolphin, mammal skulls, and the motehrlode—a rustic wooden crate containing a mysterious jagged pinecone-shaped object.

“This particularly interesting specimen was a cast of a tail of a Glyptodon,” said student researcher Bright Sajirat Palakarn ’20. “Judging from the size of the tail, we estimated that the complete cast of a full-sized replica of a Glyptodon would be around the size of a small city car or a classic Volkswagen.”

The tail was housed in a box labeled ‘2 of 3.’

“So we knew there had to be two other boxes,” Thomas said. Later we found the Glyptodon‘s carapace (body segment) in a giant crate labeled ‘1 of 3’ in the Foss tunnels. We looked all over but never found crate ‘3 of 3,’ and that’s probably where the head and foot was that we saw in pictures taken at the old museum. But lots of the items from the old museum were misplaced or lost over time.”

In October 2017, students moved the crates to the machine shop at the ground level of Exley, where the body and tail were reunited again after 60 years. Instrument specialists David and Bruce Strickland and Jim Zareski, research assistant/lab manager for the Earth and Environmental Sciences Department, worked on mounting the Glyptodon and building a wooden pedestal for it, similar to the base it once stood on at the Judd Museum.

The casts were sold by Ward’s Scientific Company of Rochester, NY, founded by Henry A Ward (1840-1906), and Wesleyan obtained one for the Judd Hall Museum of Natural History in the 1870s (it cost then $150.-).

The Glyptodon casts were sold by Ward’s Scientific Company of Rochester, N.Y., founded by Henry Ward (1840-1906). Wesleyan paid $150 for the cast in the 1870s. Today, they’re about $30,000.

Since the cast head was never found, Thomas ordered a replacement, and in February, students painted the entire Glyptodon—head to tail. “Beleive it or not, you can still order parts for it,” she said. “I’d like to order feet for it someday.”

Phase II of the set-up will include a rotating slide show about the Glyptodon on a mounted TV, and a nine-banded armadillo—Dasypus novemcinctum—display, cased in glass.

“The nine-banded armadillo is a species alive today,” said Annie Burke, chair and professor of biology. “Displayed next to the fossil Glyptodon, it provides an example of how morphologies—size and shape—can evolve within a single lineage.”

Those who also assisted with the Glyptodon emergence include James Zareski, research assistant/ lab manager; Joel Labella, facilities manager; Tan Yu Kai ’20, Andy Tan Dick Yee ’21; Wisly Juganda ’20; Miah Mai Anh Tran ’20.

“It has been a great journey, having Professor Thomas and Professor Burke endearingly calling us Glyptodon-related titles, from Glyptodon Cleaners to Master Plasterers to finally now Master Glyptodoners,” Tan Dick Yee said.

The Glyptodon is now a permanent exhibition of Wesleyan’s Joe Webb Peoples Museum & Collections, based on the fourth floor of Exley Science Center. It’s is located in the lobby of Exley Science Center between the entrance to the Science Library and Tishler Hall. The original fossil of which Wesleyan’s is cast was found in Argentina in 1846 and is now in a museum in Dijon, France.

“We’re go glad we were able to bring the Glyptodon back into public view, so she can be enjoyed by all,” Thomas said.

After repairs were made to the Glyptodon's internal structure, students cleaned and painted the cast.

After repairs were made to the Glyptodon‘s internal structure, Freeman Scholars Andy Tan Dick Yee ’21, at left, and Yu Kai Tan ’20 cleaned, repaired, restored and painted the Glyptodon fossil cast. They also designed a Glyptodon poster and video, which are part of the display.

Learn about the Glyptodon‘s restoration process in this video:


View photos of the Glyptodon‘s installation on Feb. 26 below: (Photos by Olivia Drake)

Bruce Strickland wheels in the Glyptodon's tail.

Dave Strickland uses a cart to haul the Glyptodon‘s tail through Exley Science Center. The tail cast weighs about 80 pounds.

Since the cast head was never found, Thomas ordered a replacement and students painted the entire Glyptodon the color of what it would have looked like in 1846

Since the cast head was never found, Thomas ordered a replacement and students painted the entire Glyptodon the color of what it would have looked like alive.

Dave Strickland pulls the Glyptodon forward before gluing its "feet" to the wooden base.

Dave Strickland pulls the Glyptodon forward and into place before gluing its “feet” to the wooden base.

During the installation, many passers-by stopped to watch and inquire about Exley’s new resident Glyptodon.

Jim Zareski screws the tail to the frame. Zareski also created the Glyptodon‘s wooden base to match the one it was exhibited on at the former Orange Judd Museum of Natural Sciences.

"I never thought I'd be a professional Glyptodon installer, but here I am," Bruce Strickland said.

“I never thought I’d be a professional Glyptodon installer, but here I am,” Bruce Strickland said.

In conjunction with the Glyptodon installation, Kirk Johnson, the Sant Director at the National Museum of Natural History of the Smithsonian Institution, spoke on campus March 1. Johnson discussed “Natural History in the Age of Humans,” highlighting the importance of natural history museums in the present day.

In conjunction with the Glyptodon installation, Kirk Johnson, the Sant Director at the National Museum of Natural History of the Smithsonian Institution, spoke on campus March 1. Johnson discussed “Natural History in the Age of Humans,” highlighting the importance of natural history museums in the present day.

Kirk Johnson

Johnson holds a position once held at the Smithsonian in the late 1800s by George Brown Goode, the class of 1870, who also was the first curator of Wesleyan’s Museum of Natural History and the son-in-law of Orange Judd, class of 1847, for whom Judd Hall is named.

The event was sponsored by the College of Integrative Sciences, the Allbritton Center, and the departments of Earth &; Environmental Sciences and Biology.

The event was sponsored by the College of Integrative Sciences, the Allbritton Center, and the departments of Earth and Environmental Sciences and Biology. (Kirk Johnson lecture photos by Rich Marinelli)