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What Is a Three-Toed Sloth?

Three-toed sloths live in South and Central America.
Some scientists believe that sloths' slow movements actually protect them from predators.
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  • Written By: Marjorie McAtee
  • Edited By: W. Everett
  • Last Modified Date: 13 March 2014
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The three-toed sloth, or Bradypus tridactylus, is a nocturnal animal native to Central and South American jungles. These animals typically spend most of their time among the lower branches of trees, though they sometimes move to the tops of trees in order to enjoy sunlight. The three-toed sloth's name probably comes from its habit of moving about very slowly, a trait that biologist think helps to hide the animal from predators.

The average three-toed sloth has long, brown or gray fur, from which green-colored algae may grow. These animals are usually about 2 feet (61 centimeters) long and weight about 8.75 pounds (4 kilograms). The typical sloth will have a stubby, flattened head, a shortened muzzle, large eyes, and very small ears.

These jungle animals usually spend between 15 and 18 hours asleep each day. They normally sleep while hanging upside down from the branches of trees. The typical three-toed sloth has three powerful, talon-like claws on each foot, which it uses to cling to the branches of the trees in which it lives. These animals usually move about most at night, although they will sometimes move to the tops of trees during the day to sun themselves. This behavior can render them vulnerable to one of their two natural predators, the harpy eagle.

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The jaguar, a tree cat native to the same jungle regions as the three-toed sloth, sometimes also feeds on these animals. Biologists believe that the algae growing in the typical sloth's fur can help it better hide itself from such predators.

These animals feed mostly on fruit, shoots, and leaves. Their favorite food appears to be cecropia leaves. They don't usually drink much water, and instead rely mostly on the moisture found in their food. The average three-toed sloth will come down from its arboreal home to bury its droppings once every seven to 14 days. Biologists believe that infrequent defecation helps the three-toed sloth cut down on its water needs.

The young of these animals generally remain with their mothers for about nine months after birth. This time is also spent in the trees. Sloths usually remain in the trees almost constantly, since they're generally incapable of moving efficiently on the ground. When moving on the ground, the three-toed sloth is typically reduced to pulling itself along using the claws of its front feet. They can, however, usually swim very well and are often observed dropping into the water from their perches in the trees above.

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