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The Gap Year Blog

Species in Focus: Sloths

4 Dec 2018 12:00 PM

Photo Credit: Frontier

These gentle cuddly creatures are found native in the tropical rainforests of South and Central America. Often hanging off trees, many people wouldn’t expect the mammals to be able to swim. That’s right – swim. So, what else can we find out about Sloths?

The name ‘sloth’ literally comes from their slow nature, and it’s not just their movement which takes some time, their metabolism is slow too. They only defecate once a week. No wonder we call it the world’s slowest mammal. You can see them swinging from branch to branch up and hanging upside down high in the trees of the tropical rainforests and spend about 15 to 20 hours a day sleeping - lucky for some.  

But, as we now know, sloths can swim too. Sometimes they drop down into the water below the rainforest trees, and are actually found to be three times faster in water than in land due to their natural buoyancy and long arms.

There are six species around the entire world, and they are mainly found in Costa Rica. In the exotic jungles of the rainforest, many people take part in conservation by participating in the monitoring and assessment of the biodiversity of Costa Rica’s wildlife. Sloths are one of the most vital parts of these rainforests which many people can explore by taking part in Costa Rica Animal Rescue projects

Photo Credit: Frontier

These six species are are split into two-toes and three-toed sloths depending -surprisingly - on their fingers and not their toes. All sloths have three toes in their feet, but the two-toed sloth has two fingers in their hands. 

Although both known as sloths, the two different families are not closely related; they may look and do the same, but from research in the 1970s scientists are uncertain how the two genera became so alike in their lifestyles. Of these families, the pygmy sloth is known to be critically endangered and the maned sloth is vulnerable. You can easily get involved to conserve these creatures by jumping into an ethical Animal Sanctuary project, which helps the species sustainability. 

Belonging to the superorder of Xenarthra, sloths are understood to have evolved from a group of mammals descending from South America 60 million years ago. In the wild, they are known to survive around 20 years, and in captivity can stretch to 30. One of the longest living sloths was named Paula in Halle Zoo, Germany; she reached over 47 years in captivity! If you’re feelin’ philo-sloth-ical, why not get up close with these animals and see their relaxed lifestyle yourself on a Wildlife Conservation Internship?

Photo Credit: Frontier

These sloths are most at risk when they climb down from their trees to go to the toilet. The biggest threats are the predators which linger such as jaguars, ocelots and harpy eagles. Being very slow and only climbing up at about 6 feet a minute, they wouldn’t be the best predators themselves. They tend to feed off of leaves and branches, as well as some insects.

Although not being a very good predator, in fact, ancient sloths used to be able to grow as big as an elephant! They stay on their own and only ever interact during breeding season, so they’re happy to mooch around on their own.

So, we know sloths are slow. Very slow. But, we now also know they are great at breaststroke, only go to the toilet once a week, and grew far bigger than they are today. Want to learn more about this sleepy animal? Join us on a volunteering trip to Costa Rica and get to see them up close and personal!

By Caitlin Casey and Ignatius Hillcoat-Nalletamby - Online Journalism Intern

Frontier runs terrestrial & marine conservation, community, teaching and adventure projects in over 50 countries - join us and explore the world!