Rusty the sloth celebrates 30th birthday


Roughly 150 people were in and out of the University of Iowa’s Museum of Natural History Monday to celebrate Rusty the Sloth’s 30th birthday.

With music blaring, vanilla cake with the sloth’s face, pointy birthday hats, and a gigantic card, attendants showered Rusty with love and attention. Rusty is actually a statue of an Ice Age-era Jefferson giant ground sloth.

Although the celebration was all about Rusty, Monday actually marked the 30-year anniversary of the opening of Iowa Hall gallery. However, because of Rusty’s popularity, he was used as the main attraction.

“This is a great way to get people into the museums,” said Casey Westlake, the museum communications coordinator.

Westlake noted Rusty’s birthday party was able to attract families, young children, UI students, and faculty throughout the day.

“Rusty is our star. He’s our spokes-sloth. He’s our mascot,” said Trina Roberts, the interim director of the Pentacrest Museums. “There’s nothing quite like him. He has such an effect on people.”

UI senior Nathan Kooker, a student staff member at the Museum of Natural History, said Rusty is the figurehead of the museum.

“Every freshman that comes to campus learns about Rusty,” Kooker said. “Some of my favorite stories are giving tours to little kids, who are always very excited to see Rusty.”

Roberts said around 10,000 years ago, giant ground sloths just like Rusty roamed eastern Iowa during the Ice Age.

“The first fossils found on the East Coast were described by Thomas Jefferson,” Roberts said.

Because Jefferson described the giant sloth fossils, he named them after himself.

However, upon first observing the fossils, Jefferson thought they were lions because of the large claws found on giant sloths. It wasn’t until much later that it was clear the fossils did in fact belong to giant sloths.

Though Rusty is a replica, meaning he is not an actual fossil, he was accurately made by a three-dimensional artist based on previously found fossils.

Key components that make Rusty possible are the 1,400 cow tails that make up his fur.

“The cow tails were scoured from rendering plants all around the Midwest,” said Will Thomson, who was the exhibit design artist and instructor in museum studies at the UI from 1982-1994, which is when Rusty was brought in.

The replication of sloth fur was made possible due to remnants of the fur that can still be found today.

“Fur from Ice Age sloths can still be found in caves in South America,” Thomson said.

Though Thomson helped design the exhibit in which Rusty resides, he said he had “no clue” Rusty was going to be as popular as he is.

“We knew he had a lot of personality,” he said. “He’s an odd character to think of as part of the Iowa landscape during the Ice Age.”

Thomson noted that giant sloths were very misunderstood and sometimes feared because of their size and large claws, but in reality, they were herbivores.

“What are museums but to show people the real thing?” Thomson asked. “You can go to a library and read about it, but you can’t see the thing itself until you go to a museum.”

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