What Is a Sloth?
Sloths are slow moving animals that spend almost all their lives upside down. Sloths live in trees in the forests of Central and South America. They are the world’s slowest mammal, so sedentary that algae grow on their furry coat. The plant gives it a greenish tint that is useful camouflage in the trees of their rain forest home.
The two kinds of sloths that exist today are often called two-toed and three-toed sloths. The “toes” are really long, curved claws, and they aren’t much good for anything except hanging upside down from tree branches. All sloths are built for life in the treetops. They spend nearly all of their time aloft, hanging from branches with a powerful grip aided by their long claws.
Sloths do everything upside down. These sluggish animals move slowly about in trees, eating leaves and twigs. Once their hunger is satisfied, they even fall asleep upside down, and they sleep a lot—some 15 to 20 hours every day. Even when awake they often remain motionless. At night they eat leaves, shoots, and fruit from the trees and get almost all of their water from juicy plants.
On land, sloths’ weak hind legs provide no power and their long claws are a hindrance. They must dig into the earth with their front claws and use their strong front legs to pull themselves along, dragging their bellies across the ground. If caught on land, these animals have no chance to evade predators, such as big cats, and must try to defend themselves by clawing and biting.
Though they couldn’t be clumsier on land, sloths are surprisingly good swimmers. They sometimes fall directly from rain forest trees into rivers and stroke efficiently with their long arms.
The three-toed sloth emits a long, high-pitched call that echoes through the forests as “ahh-eeee.” Because of this cry these sloths are sometimes called ais (pronounced “eyes”). Three-toed sloths also have an advantage that few other mammals possess: They have extra neck vertebrae that allow them to turn their heads some 270 degrees.
Two-toed sloths are slightly larger than their three-toed relatives. They are able to survive in captivity, while three-toed sloths are not.