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sloth

sloth facts

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"The sloth is the slowest mammal in the world."

Sloths are animals that live in the treetops of the rainforests of Central and South America. They forage and eat leaves, buds and twigs throughout the day. These slow-moving mammals sleep 15 to 20 hours and can only move about 40 yards a day. But thanks to their long arms, they have excellent swimming skills.

sloth
Sloths sleep 15 to 20 hours and can only move about 40 yards per day.

© Janossy Gergely/Shutterstock.com

5 facts about sloths

  • Sloths move slowly due to their extremely slow metabolism
  • Sloths come out of the treetops to defecate only once a week
  • There are six species of sloth, one critically endangered and one vulnerable
  • Today there are two-toed and three-toed sloths, both about the size of a dog
  • An ancient giant sloth, called a giant sloth, was about the size of a modern-day elephant

Read other interesting sloth facts here.

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scientific name

These animals are commonly known as sloths and have the scientific name Folivora. Distant relatives of the sloth superorder Xenarthra include anteaters and armadillos. Members of the order Pilosa and the suborder Folivora, whose name comes from a combination of the Old English word "slow" ending in "the".

american beast
Megatherium americanum looked like a very large sloth with less hair and claws seven inches long.

© Nobu Tamura Email: [email protected] http://spinops.blogspot.com/ / CC BY-SA 4.0 – License

evolution

Sloths are members of the suborder xenarthrans — making them relatives of armadillos and anteaters. These animals originated in South America during the late Paleocene about 60 million years ago and are known for their slow metabolism and lack of teeth. These animals originated in South America during the Late Paleocene about 60 million years ago.

A recent study and analysis of intact mitochondrial DNA in fossil sloths between 10,000 and 45,000 years ago has revealed a surprising conclusion. The three-toed sloth is related to the ground sloth Megalonyx, a horse-sized creature that roamed the North American continent until about 15,000 years ago, and the elephant-sized giant. Two-toed sloths, although very similar to their three-toed counterparts, are related to the South American megalodon, the last ground sloth that went extinct less than 10,000 years ago.

WLA hmns giant ground sloth Eremotherium
Eremotherium weighs as much as Megatherium , but lives wider than its size mate, reaching Mexico and the United States.

© Wikipedia Loves Art contributor "Kamraman" / CC BY-SA 2.5 – Licensed

Two species of sloths we know and love today only escaped extinction when they began living in trees. Even more intriguingly, the two sloth species—the two-toed and the three-toed—evolved as arboreal creatures completely independent of each other. This is an example of convergent evolution — when a species takes different evolutionary routes to achieve the same fitness. These two sloths evolved into six species—four three-toed sloths and two two-toed sloths.

The stupidest animal in the world: the sloth
The green color on the sloth's fur is algae used as camouflage.

©iStock.com/Nachosuch

appearance and behavior

Sloths are animals that are 24 to 31 inches long. They weigh between 7.9 and 17 pounds as adults. Two-toed sloths have two toes on their front feet and three toes on their back feet. Three-toed sloths have three toes on all feet and a stubby tail that varies in length from 2 inches to 2.4 inches. Between the two, the two-toed sloth is the larger. Both types have long arms and legs, round heads, and small ears.

Other differences between two-toed and three-toed sloths include the number of bones in their necks. Two-toed sloths have five to seven cervical vertebrae. Three-toed sloths have eight or nine of these vertebrae. Among all other mammals except manatees, this makes these animals unique. All other mammals have seven cervical vertebrae, except manatees, which have six, and sloths, which have between five and nine. Thanks to extra cervical vertebrae, sloths can turn their heads farther than humans.

These animals have poor eyesight and hearing. But they can see color. Since these senses are poor, they rely heavily on smell and touch.

These mammals also have very slow metabolisms and low body temperatures. Their temperature can be as low as 68 degrees Fahrenheit depending on the environment. But that range usually stays between 77°F and 95°F.

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Unlike other mammals, the outer layer of sloth fur grows in the opposite direction from other mammals. Mammalian hair usually grows down the arms and legs. But sloths have hair that grows from their arms and legs and parted down the middle of their chest and abdomen. This provides better protection from the elements, as they spend most of their lives hanging upside down.

Because this is the slowest mammal, their fur has algae growing in each hollow hair. This green algae acts as camouflage, helping the animals hide from predators in the treetops. The fur-eating creatures in this particular ecosystem are mosquitoes, sandflies, lice, mites, ticks, beetles and moths. The moths fertilize the algae on their fur, helping more growth.

sloth on the ground
Sloths emerge from the treetops to defecate once a week.

© Kristel Segeren/Shutterstock.com

The limbs of these animals allow the mammals to hang from tree branches. But those limbs don't support their weight very well. This makes the animals helpless and awkward on the ground. They can only drag themselves on the ground with their paws. So they come out of the treetops only once a week. They do this to free themselves and return to the trees, where they are less threatened by predators.

Despite being unsafe or unable to move well on the ground, sloths swim well. They do the breaststroke like a human, propelling themselves through the water with ease on their long, slender limbs. Their bodies also float very well.

These animals don't spend time around each other except for mating and raising their young. They show aggression towards sloths of the same sex. They mostly lead solitary lives at night.

sloth
Sloths live in Central and South America—often spending their entire lives in a single tree.

©Lukas Kovarik/Shutterstock.com

Habitat

Modern sloths live in Central and South America. But their ancestors lived in North America. In Central and South America, they prefer taller trees in tropical rainforests, cloud forests, and mangroves. Each sloth moves around several trees during its lifetime. But many people spend their entire lives in the same tree they were born in.

These animals hang from tree branches to sleep, eat, mate and raise their young. The only reason animals leave the treetops is to go to the toilet once a week, find a mate, or expand their territory.

diet

Three-toed sloths eat mostly plants, making them herbivores. They prefer the leaves of the leafy beetle tree. Two-toed sloths eat both plants and small animals. They love leaves, fruit, small lizards and insects.

These mammals have multi-chambered stomachs that contain many bacteria that decompose plant material. They digest food very slowly. It takes them a week to a month to digest most food. These foods are also low in nutrients, so they don't get energy from most foods. Scientists believe this lack of energy is why they move so slowly.

Predators and Threats

Key predators of these animals include jaguars, snakes, large birds of prey and humans. They defend themselves by swiping at predators with long, sharp claws that extend out of their long arms. Humans who hunt sloths have realized that shooting them may be pointless, since the animals tend to hang from tall tree branches with their claws even when dead. The animals' best defense against any predator is to use their algae-covered fur as camouflage in trees.

These slow-moving animals eat poison ivy because it harms the animals that eat them. Although they can easily die at the hands of snakes, jaguars, or large birds of prey, the poison ivy in their bodies can suffocate the animals that eat them. The plant's toxin causes the predator's throat to swell, stopping it from breathing.

In addition to animal predators and humans, these animals face other survival challenges. Sloths are believed to have existed on Earth in one form or another for at least 40 million years. But today, they face threats from habitat destruction, road construction, traffic, power lines, tourism and the pet trade.

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mother sloth with baby
Baby sloths stay with their mother for five months.

© Kristel Segeren/Shutterstock.com

Reproduction, Babies and Longevity

Some species mate at the same time each year. Maned sloths breed year-round. Three-toed sloths give birth one at a time after six months of pregnancy, while two-toed sloths have a 12-month pregnancy. These newborns lived with their mothers for five months. During this time, they cling to the mother's body. Sometimes they drop to the forest floor and their mother is either too lazy or too slow to pick them up. As a result, the baby died not from the fall, but from where it landed.

When babies are five or six months old, they leave their mothers. They claim a piece of her territory as their own. Although they no longer lived together, the mother and her offspring continued to communicate throughout their lives. They "talk" to each other with loud calls.

For humans, it can be difficult to tell if an animal is female or male. The genders that zoos receive are often unexpected. Scientists don't yet know how long these animals live in the wild. But in human care, the average lifespan of a sloth is about 16 years. A female at the Smithsonian's National Zoo lived 49 years.

Linnaeus' two-toed sloth or unau at the zoo.
Linnaeus two-toed sloth or unau at the zoo.

© belizar/Shutterstock.com

species

  • The pygmy three-toed sloth ( Bradypus pygmoeus ), also known as the monk or pygmy sloth, is a tiny sloth that can only be found on the island of Isla Escuado de Varagaras on the Caribbean coast of Panama.
  • Maned sloth ( Bradypus torquatus ) This three-toed sloth is characterized by its lack of facial markings and long, rough brown fur.
  • White-throated sloth ( Bradypus tridactylus ) This sloth can hang upside down for up to 18 hours and can even sleep and give birth upside down.
  • Brown-throated sloth ( Bradypus variegatus )
  • Found in the forests of Central and South America, this species is the most common three-toed sloth.
  • The Linnaean two-toed sloth ( Choloepus didactylus ) has two toes on its front legs and three on its back legs – this tiny sloth is thought to be the slowest animal in the world – even slower than other sloths!
  • Hoffmann's Two-toed Sloth ( Coloepus hoffmanni ) Also known as the northern two-toed sloth, the Hoffmann's two-toed sloth is a solitary creature that can be found in mature rainforests and deciduous forests of South and Central America.
sloth eating leaves
Small brown-throated sloth eating leaves

©Damsea/Shutterstock.com

population

These animals continued to thrive in South and Central America. On Panama's Barro Colorado Island, these animals make up 70 percent of the tree-dwelling mammals. Four out of six living sloth species on Earth are not facing extinction. They are listed as "Least Concern". But the maned sloth in eastern Brazil is classified as "vulnerable." The Panamanian pygmy sloth that lives on the country's islands is critically endangered.

Multiple sloth conservation organizations exist today. They work to protect the habitat and the animals themselves. These organizations educate people about the biology, ecology and conservation of these animals. They also rehabilitate injured sloths and release them back into the wild.

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about the author

Lisa Pace


After a career providing opportunities for local communities to experience and create art, I enjoy having time to write about two of my favorite things – nature and animals. I spend half my life outside, usually with my husband and adorable 14 year old puppy. We enjoyed walking around the lake and taking photos of the animals we encountered including: otters, osprey, Canada geese, ducks and nesting bald eagles. I also enjoy reading, discovering books to add to my library, collecting and playing vinyl records, and listening to my son's music.

Sloth FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions)

What is a sloth?

The sloth is an arboreal animal known as the slowest mammal on Earth. The fur-covered animal spends most of its life hanging upside down from trees. They live in the rainforests of Central and South America. There are six species of sloth, some with two toes on their front feet and others with three.

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Are sloths carnivores, herbivores or omnivores?

Two-toed sloths are omnivores. They eat plants, small lizards and insects. Three-toed sloths eat most plants. This makes them herbivores.

What is sloth bear?

The sloth bear is a species of bear native to India. These bears are not related to sloths. They are not slow either. In fact, sloth bears are very fast, even faster than humans.

Are sloths dangerous?

Sloths rely on their algae-covered fur to hide themselves in leafy treetops. But if humans try to catch a sloth, the slow-moving animal can become aggressive. Sloths swing their long arms with sharp claws in an attempt to bite anyone or anything that attacks them. They also grab hard, digging their claws into the meat to grab hold. But they don't choose to chase or run after humans. They only protect themselves.

Do sloths die when they poop?

Sloths have to poop once a week. To do this, they must leave their safe perch in the trees to descend to the ground. A sloth's pooping process is a lot like human childbirth. In the process, they lost a third of their body weight. At the same time, they are extremely vulnerable to ground predators. Pooping is the only time a sloth is upright. They start by digging a hole in the ground to house their droppings, then cover it with dirt when they're done.

Why are sloths so slow?

Scientists believe sloths are so slow because they don't get enough nutrients from their diets and need to live an energy-conserving lifestyle. A sloth's diet consists mainly of leaves, fruit, and other plants. Without adequate nutrition, sloths cannot produce energy. The digestion of these irritants also takes a long time, ranging from a few days to a month for a single meal. As a result, sloths have very slow metabolisms. Additionally, sloths are most vulnerable on the ground. The slower their metabolism and the more energy they store, the less they have to venture out of the protected canopy and the more likely they are to survive.

To which kingdom do sloths belong?

Sloths belong to the animal kingdom.

What door do sloths belong to?

Sloths belong to the phylum Chordata.

Which category do sloths belong to?

Sloths belong to the class Mammalia.

What family do sloths belong to?

Sloths belong to the Bradypodidae family.

What order do sloths belong to?

Sloths belong to the order Pilosa.

What genus do sloths belong to?

Sloths belong to the genus Bradypus.

What type of cover do sloths have?

Sloths are covered with fur.

What type of habitat do sloths live in?

Sloths live among tall trees in tropical rainforests.

What do sloths eat?

Sloths eat leaves, buds and fruit.

Who are the sloth's natural enemies?

Predators of sloths include eagles, snakes and jaguars.

What is the average litter size for a sloth?

The average litter size for a sloth is 1.

Any fun facts about sloths?

The body temperature of a sloth is between 30 – 34 degrees!

What is the scientific name of the sloth?

The sloth's scientific name is Choloepus Hoffmani.

What is the lifespan of a sloth?

Sloths can live 25 to 40 years.

Sloths vs. Koalas: The Key Differences

The biggest differences between sloths and koalas are range, size and speed. Koalas live only in Australia, while sloths live in many countries in Central and South America. Koalas are also larger than sloths. In fact, they can stand a full head larger than the average sloth. Additionally, koalas are much faster than sloths, reaching speeds of 15-20 mph over short distances when required.

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source
  1. David Burnie, Dorling Kindersley (2011) Animals, The Definitive Visual Guide to the World's Wildlife
  2. Tom Jackson, Lorenz Books (2007) Encyclopedia of World Animals
  3. David Burney, Kingfisher (2011) The Animal Encyclopedia of Kingfishers
  4. Richard Mackay, University of California Press (2009) Atlas of Threatened Species
  5. David Burnie, Dorling Kindersley (2008) Illustrated Animal Encyclopedia
  6. Dorling Kindersley (2006) Dorling Kindersley Animal Encyclopedia
  7. David W. Macdonald, Oxford University Press (2010) Encyclopedia of Mammals