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The Sloth: The World’s Slowest Yet Most Charming Mammal

Updated: Dec 21, 2023


Sloth
Sloth. Photo Credit: Unsplash/Sophia Muller

The three-toed or three-fingered sloths are the slowest mammals on our planet. However, they possess some unique characteristics that are mind boggling. Let’s learn more about these mammals now! Here are 10 fun facts about sloths that everyone should know!


1. Sloths have been on our planet since about 65.5 million years ago - just before the dinosaurs went extinct. During this time, there was a great cross migration of fauna from South America into North America via Central America and vice versa, through the land bridge called the Isthmus of Panama . This migration is called The Great American Biotic Interchange (GABI), also known as the Great American Interchange and the Great American Faunal Interchange. During this migration, one of the mammals to cross into North America from South America was the giant sloth. The giant sloths were huge, elephant size beasts which consumed tough, low energy fibrous leaves. However, these giant ancient sloths (such as the Harlan’s ground sloth) became extinct at the end of the Ice Age about 10,000 years ago. Today, their descendants are only found in Central and South America.


Harlan’s ground sloth
Harlan’s ground sloth. An Ice Age behemoth. Photo Credit: utep.edu


2. There are two species of extant sloths. The Two-toed or Two-fingered sloth and the Three-toed or Three-fingered sloth. Both species though have three toes or claws on their hind feet they use to hang upside down from trees. The extant three-toed sloths of today are closely related to the extinct giant sloth of the Ice Age. Today’s sloths are about the size of a dog, around 2.5 feet (0.8m) long.


Two-toed or two-fingered sloth
Two-toed or two-fingered sloth. Photo Credit: pxhere.com

Three-toed or three-fingered sloth
Three-toed or three-fingered sloth. Because of their special facial structure, sloths always seem to be smiling even when they are experiencing pain. Photo Credit: pxhere.com

 

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3. Sloths like to hang from branches of trees in between eating or napping. Often motionless, this charade can go on for 15 to 20 hours! Since their primary diet is low energy bud, shoot and leaf material, they conserve their energy as much as possible by being slow and inactive. Being slow and remaining motionless for hours also helps sloths in escaping attention of their predators such as the Harpy Eagle, Jaguar, and the Ocelot.


Three-toed or three-fingered sloth. Hanging down.
Three-toed or three-fingered sloth. Hanging down. Good exercise! Photo Credit: pxhere.com

4. Sloths generally travel no more than 125 feet (38 m) in a single day, and on the rare occasion that they find themselves at ground level, they crawl only 1 foot (30 cm) per minute.


5. Sloths have extra vertebrae at the base of their neck, allowing them to turn their head 270 degrees. They can obtain an almost 360-degree view of their surroundings, which proves to be a highly beneficial defense mechanism.


6. Sloths and the green jungle algae have a beautiful symbiotic relationship. The algae are part of the sloth’s diet and is often covered by it. The algae benefit from the fact that the sloth’s fur retains moisture, which is essential for the survival of the algae. The algae also give the sloth’s body a greenish tinge. Therefore, when the sloth lies motionless between branches of a tree, it is almost undetectable by predators. The algae on their body give sloth great camouflage among the green leaves of their tree domain.


Sloth and Green Algae
Sloth and Green Algae. Photo Credit: Unsplash/Jack Charles

7. The entire body of hair of a sloth is a unique ecosystem for a host of organisms, from microbes, insects to fungi. Astoundingly, the entire life cycle of many moths, such as the Cryptoses Chiloepi Dyar, depends on sloths. When a sloth descends to forest floor from their tree canopy to defecate, the female moths lay their eggs in the dung (poop). Once the eggs hatch, the adult moths instinctively fly over to the tree canopy. Here, they mate in the sloth’s fur. Then, the life cycle repeats. Wow! Have you heard about any such phenomenal story?

8. Although seemingly clumsy on ground and in trees, sloths are incredibly good swimmers. In many of their mangrove or river habitats, they drop into water and swim large distances effortlessly to find mates or new territories.


9. Sloths are extremely picky while pooping. They will always laboriously climb down from their tree canopy onto the forest floor to defecate or urinate and then climb back up ever so slowly. Fortunately, they poop or urinate just once a week.

10. Although their habitat is shrinking due to human encroachment, many government agencies are striving hard to save the remaining sloths in the wild.


If you would like to protect sloths, then please donate to:


Did You Know?

  • A Symbiotic relationship is an interaction between two dissimilar organisms. The specific kind of symbiosis depends on whether either or both organisms benefit(s) from the relationship.

  • Sloths generally spend 90% of their lives hanging upside down. Scientists say this is possible because their organs are attached to their rib cage, so they don’t weigh down on their lungs. Unlike us, sloths can hang upside down without affecting their breathing!

  • Like the ruminants such as the cows, sloths have multi chambered stomach.


 

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