Sometimes Costa Rica seems magical, it’s wildlife beautiful, and in many cases bizarre. But to me, much of it is strangely familiar. You see, I spend most of my time in this land of lush mountains, wild rivers, the turquoise Caribbean sea and the rapacious Pacific Ocean.
And this column will feature its wildlife (but I’ll also take a few side-trips into writing about critters from other countries as well.)
So we might as well get started, and what better way to do that than to write about Hoffman’s Two-Toed sloth? As you might guess, they have two toes (or actually fingers), and in Costa Rican Spanish, they have a tongue-trippy name: Perezoso de dos dedos (loosely translated, this means “two-finger sloth.”)
Yes. My husband and I encounter these enigmatic creatures now and then.
In Costa Rica, Sometimes The Neighbors Drop In
Like this two-toed sloth, who decided it wanted to hang around on our back patio.
The sloth above was on its way to a suitable tree and decided our patio roof was the best place to climb across. Hoffmann’s two-toed sloth (Choloepus hoffmanni) and it’s smaller cousin the Brown-throated three-toed sloth (Bradypus variegatus) are well-adapted for climbing, having graceful claws that are three to four inches long, LiveScience reports.
But those enormous claws make walking on the ground next to impossible, and it’s one of many reasons why they spend their lives in trees. And two-toed sloths are about the size of a medium-sized dog, while the three-toed sloth is slightly smaller. What makes these two species of sloths particularly interesting is that they aren’t even closely related to each other; even though they are sloths, Wired reports. Instead, they are more closely related to enormous ancestors that would very likely cause our heart-rates to zoom if they were alive today.
Megatherium, which doesn’t particularly look cuddly, is a relative of our gentle three-toed sloth. The size of an elephant, it called Central and South America home during the Pliocene and Pleistocene. Yowza!
Giant Sloths Once Roamed Costa Rica
Sometimes I wish these big guys were still around; I would have loved to see one. However, I’m not sure how I’d feel about seeing one in my garden.
Two-toed sloths, on the other claw, look far less intimidating. They are completely comfortable moving about in the trees whether you’re there or not. They eat, sleep, and mate in the trees, the San Diego Zoo reports. The only reason they come down is to take a potty break or to swim when necessary. Floods are common in Costa Rica, so it’s a good thing sloths are excellent swimmers.
As this Planet Earth II video shows, sloths will also take to the water to find a mate. Featuring the adorable and critically endangered Pygmy three-toed sloth (Bradypus pygmaeus) from the Island of Escudo de Veraguas, off of Panama’s Caribbean Coast, this is what male sloths will do to find a girlfriend.
Sloths are actually slow for very good reasons. With a body that’s only 25 percent muscle mass (most mammals are about twice that), these critters can’t shiver when it’s cold. However, since they don’t weigh much, this makes them quite well-adapted for a life in the trees.
They also have an extremely slow metabolism, IFLScience reports. While it likely takes you and me 12 to 48 hours to digest and eliminate our food, sloths can take as long as one month to digest a single leaf. With a metabolism that slow, it means they only have to come down to the ground to poop and urinate once a week. And when that time comes, they lose up to one-third of their body weight.
While it might not seem like it, all that slowness actually works in the sloth’s favor. Even the fastest sloth can only manage a top speed of fewer than three meters per minute. Which would make them instant jaguar, eagle, snake, and puma food if they weren’t so well-camouflaged, thanks to opportunistic algae and fungi that turn the sloth’s fur green during the rainy season. That green fur makes them look like something out of a Dr. Suess story, but it works well as camouflage on such a slow-moving animal.
One rainy night in Costa Rica I watched a very large female two-toed sloth venture down from a banana tree only about three feet from where I was sitting, and I have to admit she smelled like mildew. She turned around and looked at me now and then and climbed back up to the roof to search for another tree. Her blonde fur hadn’t turned green just yet, and it shone in the moonlight. She looked like she didn’t even have a care in the world, but the coolest thing about her is that she was providing a home for lots of other creatures.
That’s because, among all the other unusual facts about sloths, they are also their own ecosystems, and that thick fur provides homes for insects that feed on all that lovely algae and fungi. Several species of moths and beetles are dependent on a sloth’s fur for their livelihoods.
Who knew being slow could be such a good thing?
In the video below, Sir David Attenborough gets up close and personal with a male three-toed sloth. (I know it’s a male because of the unique bullseye pattern on its back.)
Featured image courtesy of the author. All rights reserved