Hey there, I’m Yvonne and you’re watching Color and Chill, the show that soothes your eyes, your ears, and your soul. The videos I make can help you relax, reduce stress, and fall asleep by combining slow movement on the screen with soothing music, soundscapes, or my voice. If you think this is something you might enjoy, please subscribe and come back to color and chill with me often. Tonight, I’m going to be digitally painting this picture of a happy little sloth and sharing some facts with you about sloths in a slow, relaxing voice as part of a new series I’m calling “Facts to Fall Asleep to.” This is your chance to drift off peacefully while learning something new. So, let’s get started now by settling down into a comfy spot, taking a deep breath in and then slowly letting it out. And let’s begin.
Sloths are a species of mammal that live in the rainforests of Central and South America, who are known for hanging upside down from trees and being really, really slow. Despite being named after one of the seven deadly sins, sloths aren’t quite as lazy as their name may imply. In fact, they’ve got some really good reasons for their slow-paced ways and we’ll learn all about them. But first, let’s start with some history.
Before sloths were adorable, friendly looking animals, peering at us upside down from branches, they were something quite different and would probably be unrecognizable to our modern eyes. The giant ground sloth, called the Megatherium roamed ancient North and South America during the Pleistocene Epoch and, as their name implies, they could be as large as elephants. There probably wasn’t any hanging from branches for these guys. It’s thought that there may have been over 80 different types of giant ground sloth at one point and evidence suggests that several different species were marine based mammals that would eat sea grass and seaweed. But if they’re extinct, how do we know they existed?
Well, in 1788, an archaeologist and ethnobotanist named Constantino Manuel Torres found fossilized bones in Argentina that were sent to the Natural History Museum of Madrid. When the bones were assembled, they realized that they were looking at something that was nothing like what they’d seen before. Keep in mind, that at this time, nobody even knew about dinosaurs so this was a pretty “big” discovery, pun intended. As big as an elephant, nothing like it had ever been found in Europe or Asia and everyone was very skeptical about the find since it wasn’t commonly accepted at the time that species could go extinct and then be proven to have lived later through fossils and this was the case with this new discovery. However, there was a French scientist named Georges Cuvier who saw drawings of the fossil and felt that it fit his theory that it was a species of giant ground sloth which had gone extinct. One of the things that supported his theory were the large claws found on the fossil, which looked very similar to the smaller sloths that were known to be living in South America. It took time but he was eventually proven correct and he named the fossil “Megatherium Americanum.” This fossil can still be found at the Natural History Museum of Madrid. Since then, numerous other ground sloth fossils have been found, including one discovered by a certain amateur paleontologist to later turn president and founding father, Thomas Jefferson. Though Jefferson’s find turned out to be from a different, smaller genus than the Megatherium and was thus given the name “Megalonyx,” it was still impressive and was later given the species name of “jeffersonii” in his honor, which led to political opponents taunting him with the nickname “Mr. Mammoth.” Like many others at the time, Jefferson didn’t believe Cuvier’s extinction theory and even told explorers Lewis and Clark to be on the lookout for living Megalonyx in their voyages. One interesting fact about giant sloths is it’s believed that they’re responsible for the distribution of ancient avocado seeds. You see, they’re one of the few mammals that would be able to digest whole avocado seeds. They would eat avocados and then pass the seeds as they travelled around, allowing the fruit to disperse and become the delicious, healthy fat that we know and love today.
So what happened to the giant ground sloth? Well, it appears that they went extinct approximately 10,000 years ago and, though there’s speculation that it could have been due to a natural disaster or human hunting, we don’t really know the reason why. But what we do know is that sloths of some sort or another have been around for at least 64 million years and at this point in history, we’re blessed to share the planet with the sweet and slow tree sloth.
The modern day sloth is sometimes thought to be related to monkeys because of their tree hanging and sometimes shared habitats but that’s not actually the case. Sloths are, in fact, related to anteaters and armadillos. They’re the world’s slowest mammals and they spend most of their lives hanging upside down. In fact, unlike most animals, their fur grows backwards to accommodate this lifestyle. It parts in the middle of their bellies and then grows towards their back. Even the hair on their face grows upwards too…kind of like animal Einsteins? This all helps so that when it rains, the water just runs right off of their backs while they hang upside down. Speaking of their fur, it often appears green due to algae and fungi growing on it. This growth helps them camouflage in the rainforest. Their fur also is home to an entire ecosystem of invertebrates, some species which are found nowhere else on earth. A single sloth can host up to 950 moths and beetles in its fur. They lay their eggs in sloth poop and may feed on the algae and fungi on their fur.
No one knows exactly how long a sloth can live, but in captivity, scientists have noted that they can live for at least 40-50 years, and believe that in the wild they may have even longer lifespans. Sloths are solitary animals but will happily share their trees with other sloths, although that may not be true during mating season. If two males are competing for the affection of a lady sloth, they’ll fight each other in slow motion while hanging upside down from their rear legs, with the ultimate goal of knocking one another off the tree, so I’m guessing the winner wouldn’t be too keen on sharing their tree with the loser after that. Speaking of mating, a mama sloth’s pregnancy lasts about eleven and a half months, at which point, she’ll give birth to one baby, upside down, because, of course she does…why not give birth upside down when that’s the position you’re most used to? Seriously, why not? At birth, baby sloths have fully formed teeth, open eyes, and a developed clinging instinct. Babies drink milk from their mothers and will also begin eating leaves from around their mother’s mouth at about a week old. A baby will stay with its mother for about a year, when it moves on and the cycle of pregnancy and birth can begin again.
There are two separate families of sloths-the two-fingered sloth, scientifically known as the Choloepus and the three-fingered variety, scientifically called the Bradypus. You might also hear them referred to as two and three toed sloths, but the actual determining difference is the number of fingers on their front limbs because on their back limbs, what we would consider their feet, all sloths actually have three toes. What’s interesting is that, even though most of us wouldn’t be able to tell much difference between the two families, two and three fingered sloths are really only distant relatives, adopting their upside-down lifestyles independently of each other as they evolved. Two-fingered sloths have two living subspecies: Hoffmann’s two-fingered sloth, found in the Honduras, Ecuador, Peru, Brazil, and Bolivia and the Linnaeus’s two-fingered sloth, found in Venezuela, the Guyanas, Columbia, Ecuador, Peru, Brazil, and possibly also in Bolivia.
Three-fingered sloths are broken into four subspecies: the Brown-Throated Sloth, which is probably the most well-know of all sloths, are found in the Honduras and down to Peru and Bolivia. They can sometimes co-exist with the Hoffmann’s two-fingered sloth. Next comes the pygmy sloth, found exclusively on the Isla Escudo de Veruguas, a remote island in Panama, the pale-throated sloth, which can be found in French Guiana to Suriname and Columbia, and finally the maned sloth, found in the Atlantic coastal forest of Brazil.
Since sloths may all appear very similar to the untrained eye, let’s talk about some of the differences between the two families and their subspecies.
To start, Two fingered sloths are much larger than three-fingered. They reach up to 31.5 inches and weigh up to 24 lbs., though the average weight is closer to 13-18 lbs. In contrast, the Brown-throated sloth, one of the three-fingered family members, weighs only between 5-14 lbs. and grows 15-27 inches long. And pygmy sloths, also from the three-fingered family, are approximately 40% smaller than mainland sloths.
Appearance-wise, Two-fingered sloths have long, pig-like snouts and can sweat from the tip of their noses when they’re hot or stressed out. They have fleshy, hairless palms and soles of their feet. All four species of three-fingered sloths have small, round heads, small ears, a dark mask around their eyes, and a smiling face. They have short, stubby tails, and, of course, three fingers at the end of each limb.
Though almost all mammals have 7 cervical vertebrae, the two-fingered sloth, only has five, while the three-fingered sloth has 9. This means they can turn their heads at a 270 degree angle, allowing them to scan for predators without having to move their whole bodies and they can see right side up, even when hanging upside down.
Two-fingered sloths are generally faster moving and more active than their three-fingered cousins, but that’s not saying a lot since the maximum speed a sloth moves, when threatened, is only .17 miles per hour. But why do sloths move so slowly? I mean, that’s the question we all really want answered, right? Well, there’s a few reasons.
One: Sloths have a great sense of smell and spatial memory but terrible eyesight and poor hearing. They have a rare condition called rod monochromacy, meaning they completely lack cone cells in their eyes, making them color-blind, only able to see poorly in dim light, and completely blind in bright light. It’s pretty hard to move quickly, when you can’t see anything around you.
Two: Sloths have a remarkably low-calorie diet in the wild, sparesly eating only young leaves. As well, they have a large, four-chambered stomach, and an extremely slow digestive tract. It takes a sloth an entire month to digest just one leaf. Their complicated stomach and slow digestion makes it hard for them to simply consume more calories like most animals would and they end up have very little energy to spare. Speaking of digestion, a sloth only poops about once a week and when they do, they can expel up to 1/3 of their body weight! They rarely leave their branches, like we said before, even giving birth hanging upside down, but they do climb to the ground to defecate. They’ll wiggle around the base of a tree in funny little dance to dig a hole and then do their business. It’s weird that they do this since it not only wastes a lot of their precious energy but it also put them in a very vulnerable position for attack from predators. Pooping is literally the most dangerous thing that sloths do. But let’s get back to why they’re so slow now.
Reason number three: Sloths have very little muscle mass-likely to save on energy. This is quite interesting to note because despite their low muscle mass, they’re actually incredibly strong. Even from birth they can lift their entire body weight upwards with just one arm. They have highly specialized muscle arrangements that can produce enough strength to withstand the force of a big cat like a jaguar or a harpy eagle, their main predators, trying to rip them from a tree. Specialized tendons in their hands and feet lock into place when they grab a branch, allowing them to hang upside down for long periods of time without wasting their precious energy. This is also what allows them to sleep hanging from tree branches.
This brings us to our last point about why sloths are so slow and generally sendentary- Predators mostly hunt by keeping an eye out for movement. It greatly reduces the chances of being seen when you’re hanging still like a sloth than if they were moving all about. So there you have it. Sloths aren’t lazy, they’re just evolutianarily energy saving geniuses.
There are so many interesting things we could continue to learn about sloths, such as how they can sustain falls from up to 100 feet, which is good, since they fall from their branches at least once a week, or how they may raise an arm up when they’re feeling threatened and that though this may look to us humans as if they’re being friendly and waving, really, they’re trying to look large and intimidating so we’ll leave them alone. Being touched by humans is actually very stressful and somewhat dangerous to sloths, so all the selfies we see on Instagram of humans holding smiling sloths aren’t really as cute or heartwarming to the sloths as they are to the people. But as we come to the ending of this painting, it’s just about time to wrap up this episode of Facts to Fall Asleep to. Don’t worry though, I’ve included some links below where you can find even more information about sloths, if you’re interested. If you’re still awake and you enjoyed learning these facts about sloths and would like to learn more interesting things with me in the future, please like this video and subscribe to my channel. If there’s a particular subject you’d like me to research and share in future episodes, let me know in the comments below. Thank you so much for spending time and relaxing with me and I can’t wait to color and chill with you again soon. Bye.
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