Before this year trip to Costa Rica we were asked numerous times about if we were hoping to see some Sloths. It seems that despite their apparent laziness and their slow movements, there is something about them that people find very cute.
On previous trips to the Jungles of Central and South American we had seen them but always high in the forest canopy, usually resting. So it was pleasing on this trip to come across a number of active Sloths. Plus on a visit to a rescue center we found out about the life style of these amazing creatures. Their life style it appears is an excellent survival tactic totally suited to their Jungle homes
A guide to Sloths in Costa Rica.
- There are six species of Sloths in the world, in two families, two-toed sloths and three-toed. All Sloths are related to anteaters and armadillos. Two of the six Sloth species live in Costa Rica.
- All six species are descended from the now extinct giant ground Sloth. Which died out, possibly due to hunting, about 10,000 years ago. The largest of these Sloths stood about 12 feet tall and weighed in at several tons.
- Despite their different names both have three toes on each hind limb. The difference is that the two toed has only two claws / fingers on its forelimbs, while the other has three. Some researchers now refer to them as two-fingered and three-fingered Sloths. Only two species of the six species belong to the two-toed family.
- In Costa Rica the two species are only distantly related and have a few marked differences. Hoffman’s Two-toed Sloth is nocturnal whilst the Brown-throated three toed are active in the daytime. Also Three-toed Sloths are also smaller and slower than their two-toed cousins.
Sloths are arboreal creatures, spending most of their time in trees. Eating, sleeping, mating, and giving birth while hanging upside-down. Moving at a top speed of about 6 to 8 feet per minute and reputed to be the slowest animals on earth they are often referred to as lazy. However a much better description would be to think about them as being energy efficient. A Sloth’s diet consists mainly of leaves which aren’t very nutritious. Amazingly it’s a diet that can take up to a month for their four-part stomachs to digest. So in order to survive they need to conserve energy. Their slow movements also acts as a survival strategy making them difficult for predators to spot in the trees.
Sloths spend nearly all their life high in the trees, except about once a week, to defecate and urinate.When they do finally do a poo, they can expel up to a third of their entire body weight. They usually do this in the same place,on the ground. This is when they are most vulnerable to predator attacks by jaguars and snakes in Costa Rica. Whilst in the South American forests they are high on the Harpy Eagle’s menu.
More Sloth Facts
- Sloths having a quarter of the muscle mass of other animals their size. All Sloths have extra vertebrae at the base of their necks. This enables the Three-toed Sloth to turn its head 270 degrees, very similar to how many species of owls rotate their heads.
- Surprisingly, although slow and spending much of their life high in the jungle canopy Sloths are great swimmers.Swimming 3 times faster in water than when they are moving through the trees. Some are able to hold their breath for up to 40 minutes Very useful in the wet jungles for moving from one territory to another.
- As they spend about 90% of their life hanging upside down they have evolved an impressive anatomy. This is made possible by having their internal organs attached to their rib cage which shifts weight away from their diaphragm. So they don’t compress on the lungs enabling them to breathe more easily.
- The sloths huge three-inch claws help them latch onto branches and stay suspended. This ability to cling to branches is so strong that occasionally they can retain their grip after death and have been found dangling from trees.
The only time Sloths speed up is for sex
- Sloths are solitary creatures who only gather to mate. They attempt to reproduce once a year with pregnancy lasting for seven to 10 months and resulting in one baby. Apart from very rare twin births in some zoos.
- If a female is ready to mate, she will yell out a scream, signaling to any nearby males. They then move in significantly faster than they normally would. For such a slow creature mating itself can take as little as 10 seconds before they go back to their solitary lifestyles
- Baby Sloths cling onto their mother for weeks after birth staying close to their mother’s for up to four years Many of the cases of the public finding sloths are the result of them falling off their mother.
Part of the Sloth’s survival strategy is that they have evolved a symbiotic relationship with algae growing on their fur. This acts as both a camouflage giving their coat a green hue. and a source of extra nutrition through their skin. The Sloths hairy algae covered coat is in reality an ecosystem in its own right. With colonies of fungi, moths, mites all helping to make them rather unappetizing to predators. Finally although still in its infancy scientists are discovering that of the many fungi species collected from sloth’s coats three have shown positive effects in battling some strains of breast cancer. Whilst a number of others have shown signs of tackling Chagas disease. A disease which affects about 6 million to 7 million people worldwide.