Sloths

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Order: Pilosa
Life Span: 20 - 50 years, but this is still uncertain
Population: 1500
Species Status: Vulnerable - Critically Endangered

Fun Factoid

Did you know? Some Sloths are considered nocturnal while some are cathemeral, meaning they are awake during both day and night while sleeping at irregular intervals.

Welcome to the world of Sloths! These unique tree dwelling creatures live in the tropical rainforests in southern Central America and northern South America. Sloths are well known for their adorable faces and friendly, calm attitudes, but they are also very important and specialized creatures! Sloths are actually split up into two different “types”. These are the three-toed (Megatherioidea), and the two-toed Sloths (Mylodotoidea). The names point out the number of claws each kind of Sloth has on their front feet. In general, two-toed Sloths tend to be larger and have a lighter colored face. They can weigh up to 20lbs and be as long as 26 inches. Three-toed Sloths have the signature dark lines around their eyes that are very recognizable, they also always look like they’re smiling. They can weigh between 5 and 10 lbs depending on the species, and be as long as 18in.

Geography

Fun Factoid

Did you know? Sloth help to spread the seeds of different fruit trees through their poop!

Sloths are only found throughout southern Central America and northern South America. This area contains heavy tropical rainforests with large, old growth trees and vines which create a perfect highway for Sloths to use. Both the three-toed and two-toed Sloths share a lot of overlapping habitat. Sloths need humid and warm conditions found in these tropical forests, because although they are mammals, they are unable to regulate their internal body temperature. This helps Sloths save energy, but also helps them to go undetected by some predators that use infrared radiation to detect prey. These tropical forests are rich in biodiversity, meaning there are millions of other plant and animal species that coexist with Sloths, and Sloths are an important part of the ecosystem. Sloths live in the canopy of the forest, the layer of forest under the tops of the trees where there is a web of branches for them to hang on, and plenty of leaves for them to eat.

What are Sloths?

Today, there are 6 different species of Sloth. Two of them are two-toed sloths, and 4 of them are three-toed Sloths. The two-toed species include the Linnaeus’s sloth and the Hoffmann’s sloth. The three-toed species include the Brown-Throated, Pale-Throated, Maned, and Pygmy three-toed Sloths. All Sloth species today are ancestors of different species of Giant Ground Sloths called Megatherium, massive creatures that lived in South America between 35 million to 11,000 years ago during the last Ice Age. Although the three-toed and two-toed sloths are very similar, they actually evolved independently from each other, and are not closely related. Today, Sloth’s are most closely related to Anteaters. Another unique Sloth characteristic is their living fur. It has been found that Sloth fur houses its own ecosystem, with many different kinds of algae, fungi, and even five different species of moths! These algae are what can sometimes give sloth fur a very green hue.

Fun Factoid

Did you know? Some of the fungi found on Sloth fur has been found to be active against certain bacteria, cancer and even parasites!

Behavior

Because Sloths live in the dense rainforest, camouflage so well, and live very high up in the trees, there is still much about their behavior that scientists are still learning. What is well known is that Sloths are very slow-moving creatures, mostly due to their poor eyesight, and slow metabolism. Sloths are also very solitary, and rarely interact with each other unless breeding or fighting for a mate. They are specially evolved for tree life (also called being arboreal) through many different adaptations, including their very long arms for reaching and grabbing onto far away branches, and hook like claws for grasping. Although they do not have much muscle, every muscle in their body is specially designed to hold onto branches effortlessly, and they have special muscles that can lock their hands in place, meaning they can sleep while hanging. Sloths sleep for about 8 to 10 hours a day which are spread out throughout the day, and they are equally as active during the day as they are at night. A fascinating habit that Sloths have is that they will only poop once a week, and when they do, they make a long journey down to the forest floor to poop out about 30 % of their body weight on the forest floor. Sloths are also excellent swimmers, because much of the rainforests they live in are fragmented by rivers. Sloths have evolved to float on top of the water so they can easily steer with their long limbs.

Fun Factoid

Did you know? Sloths are totally color blind and have terrible vision! Their smell and special memory are their primary tools for navigating the jungle.

Diet

Fun Factoid

Did you know? Sloths very rarely have been observed eating bug larvae, and sometimes even bird eggs.

Sloths eat mostly leaves, making them a “folivore”, which is a kind of herbivore. Although Sloths do not eat a lot of food, they eat a large variety of different kinds of leaves, and even eat some of the many fruit and seed pods found throughout the jungle. Their ancestors, the Megatherium, are responsible for helping spread avocados around the jungle through their feces thousands of years ago, and Sloths today assist with many other smaller seed pods in the same way. Because plant leaves are very tough and are very hard to break down, Sloths try to only eat young leaves, and they tend to rotate between a few trees to always have a fresh supply of new leaves to eat. Sloths can take up to 30 days to digest a single leaf, and they rely on special bacteria to help break down the foliage in their gut. These bacteria are very affected by the Sloth’s body temperature, and if a Sloth gets too cold, the bacteria could die.

Reproduction

Much is still not known about Sloth reproduction, but Sloths communicate when they are ready to breed by making vocalizations or through scent marking. Once a Sloth reaches 1 to 2 years old, they begin looking for a mate, which can happen at any time throughout the year, as they have no specific breeding season. Males will fight over a female and even knock each other out of trees. Luckily, Sloths are designed to fall and can fall over 100ft without any injury. Female Sloths have 1 baby every two years, and once they have mated and separated from the male, two-toed Sloths have a gestation period of 11.5 months before giving birth. At the moment, scientists do not know the gestation period of three-toed Sloths, but it is believed to be around 6 months. When it is time to give birth, Female sloths will move to lower tree branches, and give birth upside down. It is not uncommon for baby Sloths to fall to the ground, but this is normal, and the mother will quickly move to pick the baby up and move back up the tree. Baby sloths are born with fully developed eyes, claws, and teeth, and can immediately cling to their mother to hold on while she moves through the trees. Three-toed Sloths will look after their young for about 6 months, while two-toed will take care of their young for up to a year.

Fun Factoid

Did you know? It is impossible to tell the age of wild Sloths so it is still unknown how long wild Sloths can live!

Threats

The biggest threats facing Sloths are deforestation, power line electrocutions, and climate change. Human populations are continuously encroaching on the dense tropical forests that Sloths and many other species call home. Due to deforestation, Sloths are being forced to leave their tree-top homes more often to cross roads, look for more habitat, and search for food. This puts Sloths in a dangerous position because they are not designed to be on the ground and they are commonly hit by cars, attacked by other animals, and even injured by people. Sloths are also commonly seen trying to cross power lines, which unfortunately causes Sloths to frequently be electrocuted. Human encroachment as well as deforestation has broken apart a lot of Sloth habitat, making Sloth populations smaller in certain areas and causing inbreeding, which is not good for a healthy Sloth population, and can cause many problems for baby Sloths.

Population

Currently, only two of the total six Sloth species are categorized as Endangered. These are the Maned three-toed Sloth and the Pygmy three-toed Sloth. These Sloths are the most vulnerable due to their very small range of habitat and their very specialized adaptations for their habitats. The Pygmy Sloth is currently Critically Endangered and only lives on a small island around Panama in Central America. Only about 70 individual Sloths are left. It is believed that they mainly live and eat around mangrove forests on the island, much of which have been farmed, destroying their important habitat. Luckily, many other Sloth species are still considered to have stable populations, which can be helped through the conservation of important tropical forests. Other Sloth Species like the Brown-Throated and the Linneau’s Sloths have a large range of habitat and are at less of a risk of extinction for now.

How to Help

Sloths need your help! There are so many ways to help, even if you don’t live in Central or South America. Sloth’s most dangerous threat is deforestation, much of which is caused by human development, but also to make a lot of products and food we eat. Choose products that you know have been farmed sustainably! These can include anything from paper products, to chocolate and avocados. All these products and more come from important Sloth habitat.
Support Sloth conservation organizations! There are so many amazing organizations doing important hands-on rescue, rehab, and forest restoration work to save Sloths. By donating to these organizations and spreading the word about them, you are helping to rescue, rehab, and protect Sloths.
Make more ecofriendly choices! Each time you choose to pick up trash, ride your bike instead of your car, and turn off extra lights you are helping reduce your carbon footprint and helping to slow climate change.
Talk to your friends about Sloths! The more people that know about Sloths, the more people will want to help. Spread the word and help to teach people all the things they can do to help save the rainforests.

Fun Factoid

Did you know? Every time you plant a tree, you can help replace some of the trees cut down in the rainforest!