100 Reasons Why You Should Care About the Pygmy Three-Toed Sloth

Until ten years ago, the pygmy three-toed sloth lived undisturbed in its Caribbean paradise. Then the humans arrived.
A rare face worth getting to know (Photo: Craig Turner / ZSL)
May 24, 2012
A former Gourmet staffer, Lawrence enjoys writing about design, food, travel, and lots of other stuff.

The Zoological Society of London has conducted the first ever population census of the pygmy three-toed sloth. You’re not alone if you’re thinking, “The what?”

Sloths are not exactly poster-child-pretty mammals. They don’t have the cuddly cute quality that might encourage something like a Protection for Pandas campaign, or the recognition factor that drew actor Leonardo DiCaprio to join with the World Wildlife Fund in a global mission to save endangered tigers

The only place in the world you’ll find the pygmy three-toed sloths is on Escudo Island—an unpopulated little haven about the size of New York’s Central Park—which is located 10 miles off the coast of Panama. This most likely accounts for why the sloths were only recognized as a species in 2001. Their name derives from the fact that they’re about 40 percent smaller than their mainland relatives. They’re also decent swimmers and have the ability to turn their head 360 degrees.

WildlifeExtra.com reports that the Zoological Society team’s data “suggests that there could be fewer than 100 pygmy sloths left, making them one of the most endangered mammals in the world. The exact reasons for this decline are not yet known, but they found several areas where their critical mangrove habitats have been cut down.”

Living in such a small area, any damage to their habitat will clearly have a major impact. Pygmy sloths feed on the leaves of red mangroves and they’ll stay in the same tree for up to 36 hours before moving through a canopy to the next tree. But their ability to travel becomes limited when gaps begin to appear in the mangrove forest due to human encroachment.

Bryson Voirin, a biologist who studies the behavior and ecology of two- and three-toed sloths, has observed local fishermen camping out on the island and cutting down the mangroves to use as fuel for their campsite fires. Worse yet, if the fishermen don’t catch enough fish, they eat the sloths.

The Zoological Society team is hoping to work with the local communities to firmly establish the main threats to the pygmy sloths and develop plans to protect them. Sloths may be the slowest moving mammals on Earth, but we clearly don’t have all the time in the world to try and save them.

What can we do to help in the effort to save the pygmy sloth?

Lawrence Karol is a freelance writer and editor who lives in New York City in a mid-century-modern-inspired apartment with his dog, Mike. He is a former Gourmet editor, who enjoys writing about design, food, and lots of other stuff. @WriteEditDream | Email Lawrence

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