The three-toed tree sloth family consists of four species, groups within the family that share similar characteristics. All species have eighteen peg-like teeth, slim bodies, long limbs, and tiny tails. Front limbs are longer than their back limbs.
Sloths’ fur ranges in color from gray to brown. The brownthroated three-toed sloth has brown fur in its throat area and may also have white or red fur. The pale-throated sloth has dark fur on its back and lighter colored fur on its front. The maned sloth has long, black hair on its back and neck. The monk sloth has a tan face.
All species of sloths may have green in their fur. This is caused by algae (AL-jee), tiny water plants growing in sloths’
hair. Algae are a food source, and sloths lick their fur when hungry. Sloths live in trees, and the green and brown in their fur helps them blend in with the trees and hide from predators, animals that hunt them for food.
The head and body length of three-toed tree sloths ranges from 15.8 to 30.3 inches (40 to 77 centimeters). Tail length ranges from 1.9 to 3.5 inches (4.7 to 9 centimeters). They weigh from 5.1 to 12.1 pounds (2.3 to 5.5 kilograms). The monk sloth is about 20 percent smaller than other sloth species.
Three-toed tree sloths have three long, hooked claws on the digits (toes) of each foot. Sloths use the claws measuring from 3.2 to 3.9 inches (8 to 10 centimeters) to hang upside down from tree branches. Sloths can see a great distance because sloths can turn their heads 270°. They can turn so far because sloths have eight or nine neck vertebrae (bone segments)—most mammals, including humans, have seven vertebrae.
Three-toed tree sloths live in Central and South America. Species are found in Mexico, Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, CostaRica, Ecuador, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Suriname, Venezuela, French Guiana, and Guyana. Monk sloths live only on Escudo de Veraguas Island off the coast of Panama.
Three-toed sloths live primarily in forests. They are located in rainforests, where heavy rain throughout the year produces abundant growth. Some species also live in dry forests and coniferous forests where leaves are green year-round. In addition, sloths have been found living in trees in parks and pastures.
Three-toed sloths are herbivores and eat the leaves and shoots of trees. Sloths move slowly because their diet of leaves produces little energy. To make up for the lack of energy, sloths have a low body temperature of 86° to 90°F (30° to 34°C).
BEHAVIOR AND REPRODUCTION
Three-toed sloths live upside down. They sleep, mate, and give birth in that position. Sloths are solitary. They are also polygynous (puh-LIH-juh-nus), meaning that males mate with more than one female. Sloths breed at any time during the year.
The male leaves after mating, and the female bears usually one young within five to six months. She carries this offspring with her for up to a year. During this time, the young sloth develops a taste for the leaves on which its mother feeds. Three-toed sloths are active during the day and night.
During the day, they position themselves in trees so that the sun warms them. They sleep as much as eighteen hours each day.
Sloths use their claws as hooks to move through trees. They move slowly and travel at most 125 feet (38 meters) in a day.
Their on-ground speed is 15 yards (13.7 meters) per minute.
In the water, three-toed sloths swim well. Sloths also use their claws as a defense against predators like hawks, harpy eagles, boa constrictors, and anacondas, a type of snake.
THREE-TOED TREE SLOTHS AND PEOPLE
Three-toed sloths can be important to medical research because they heal quickly and do not get infections easily. Scientists are interested to know why this is.
The maned sloth is ranked as Endangered by the World Conservation Union (IUCN). This species faces threats of becoming extinct in the future because habitat is lost as trees are cut down in forests. Hunting also reduces the population.