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The amazing adaptations of sloths

Hello! My name is Allie Coronado, and I am a new Seasonal Primate Keeper here at Zoo Atlanta. While sloths are not primates, their care falls under our area here at the Zoo. Since I find sloths exceptionally unique, I wanted to share some interesting facts about them! At Zoo Atlanta, we have three Hoffmann’s two-toed sloths, a male Cocoa and two females, Bonnie and Okra Mae. Sloths are mostly solitary, but females can be found in the same tree. The males travel between trees visiting all the females.

The hands and feet of this sloth species are highly specialized, with naked, heavily calloused soles and palms. They are called “two-toed” because they have only two digits on the forelimbs, and three digits on the hind limbs. Interestingly, in some South American countries, they are actually called “two-fingered” sloths to more accurately communicate that they have two digits on their forelimbs.

Sloths are slow-moving animals that are typically found in lowland rainforests in Mesoamerica and South America. These animals live arboreal lifestyles, meaning that they spend most of their time up in trees. Uniquely, sloths do almost everything upside down! This includes eating, sleeping, mating, and giving birth! When you come visit the sloth habitat at the Zoo, you will see we hang the sloth food bowls from the trees so they can eat upside down just like they would in the wild. If you are lucky, you may just see them hanging from their two hind limbs, reaching down to grab some veggies out of a bowl.

As sloths are herbivorous, eating mostly plants, we feed the sloths here at the Zoo a wide variety of foods, including romaine lettuce, red leaf lettuce, grapes, green beans, sweet potato, yellow squash, carrots, and leafeater biscuits. The sloths seem to have preferences – Bonnie seems to prefer grapes and sweet potatoes, Okra also prefers grapes and yellow squash, while Cocoa’s favorite seems to be sweet potatoes. They show us their preferences by eagerly taking their favorite items when they are hand-fed by care staff, and by keeping their mouths closed when we offer them a less preferred item.

Sloths mostly travel in the upper canopy of the forest but sometimes need to come to the ground to defecate. Sloths only defecate about once a week because of a slow metabolism. Sloths not only burn 8 percent of their daily calories during this time, but they are also more vulnerable to predators when they are on the ground. Why do they take the risk of climbing down? Researchers are still studying this strange behavior. Some suggest that the sloths are fertilizing their favorite trees; others have suggested that they communicate with other sloths using the latrines – but only traveling to the ground once a week minimizes the risk of predation. Since I am new, I am still observing these strange animals and learning their personalities! Fingers crossed I witness one climbing down to defecate!
Allie Coronado
Seasonal Keeper, Primates

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