Critically Endangered Pygmy Sloths of Panama are Slipping Away

Most of us are familiar with sloths. They are those strange, slow-moving creatures with scary-long nails that bring unsettling B-level horror movies to mind. Yet they have one of the sweetest, gentlest faces of any creature on the planet.

Found throughout Central America and northern South America (including Venezuela and parts of Brazil and Peru), the docile animals spend most of their time hiding up in the trees of tropical rainforests, with much of it spent curled up in a comfy crook or hanging upside down from leafy limbs providing camouflage.

Because they are so slow-moving and can freeze like a statue, they are frequently difficult to spot. There are six species of sloth (five of which live in Brazil’s segment of the Amazon) but did you know there is a pygmy version of the species? There is, and they’re in deep trouble.

pygmy tree sloth
Photo: Pixabay/WikiImages

Pygmies of Panama

The pygmy sloths of Panama are considered to be one of the world’s most critically endangered mammals on the planet. Sadly, the last official population count (in 2012) identified only 79 individuals. According to The Sloth Conservation Foundation, “Beyond the original description of the species, we still know almost nothing about these little sloths with scientific rigor.”

We have no clue as to how many of them actually remain in the wild, we know diddly squat about their diet and habitat requirements, we know practically nothing about when and how they reproduce, and we still don’t completely understand why/how/when they became dwarfed on their tiny speck of an island.

Pygmy Sloth Facts

Here’s what we do know about pygmy sloths. On average, they weigh a little over 6.5 pounds and measure approximately 24 inches in length.

They were first described as a distinct species in 2001 based on morphological differences in body size.

Due to a lack of research, scientists still have no genetic information on the status of them.

They are about 40% smaller than their full-sized counterparts living on the mainland, and we know little about their feeding habits.

Considered a dwarf version of the brown-throated, three-toed sloths found in Panama, pygmy sloths call a remote island known as Isla Escudo de Veraguas home.

The minuscule island, which formed a mere 9,000 years ago, is located just off the coast of mainland Panama and covers less than 3 square miles. Perhaps this is the reason pygmy sloths are so well-known for their swimming prowess.

tree sloth
Photo: Pixabay/lila_getupft

Escudo Island

Isla Escudo is reportedly extremely difficult to access with much of the interior said to be unexplored. The resident pygmy sloths can be found living in and feeding from red mangrove thickets. Unfortunately, these trees are frequently logged and now only makeup 0.024% of the total island mass.

No one really knows much about the sloths’ movements on the island or whether they feed from anything other than red mangrove leaves. With the number of remaining pygmy sloths in decline, it is more important than ever that humans work towards understanding the ecology of the species.

Small Tree Sloths

Besides the pygmy sloths of Escudo, there are said to be four other nearby islands located in the Bocas del Toro archipelago supporting three-toed sloths that are smaller in stature than mainland sloths.

Despite being similar in size to pygmy sloths, these other island sloths are classified as Bradypus variegatus, which is the same as the mainland species. However, the genetic status, health, and ecology of them are not well understood.

Endangered Sloths

You might be surprised to learn that only two of the six sloth species are considered threatened with extinction by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). But there is still so much to do if we’re going to save these and other creatures.

With the UN reporting that more than 1 million species are now at genuine risk of extinction and that the loss of species and habitats now poses as much danger to life here on planet Earth as climate change does, there’s no time to lose.

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