The Pygmy Three-Toed Sloth: Species Facts & Characteristics

pygmy sloth in tree

Sloths are some of the cutest creatures in the rainforest, and many sloths exist across South and Central America. These species break down into two distinct types: Choloepus (the two-toed sloth) and Bradypus (the three-toed sloth). 

There are only four Bradypus genus members, and one of these members is the small but cute Bradypus pygmaeus: the pygmy three-toed sloth.

What Is a Pygmy Sloth?

The pygmy three-toed sloth is a rarer genus of sloth. It's local only to the small island of Isla Escudo de Veraguas, off Panama's main coast. 

The island is about 17km away from the mainland and has been separate for the last 9000 years. During that time, the pygmy sloth has developed and evolved as its own distinct genus. 

Indeed, the pygmy three-toed sloth only recently gained recognition as a distinct species in 2001 by researchers Robert. P. Anderson and Charles O. Handley Jr. When the two researchers visited the island, they noticed the sloths on the there were distinctly smaller than their mainland counterparts. 

How They Live

Like most other sloths, the pygmy sloths are incredibly slow. They rely on the conservation of energy over eating lots of food. 

The sloths have adapted to living up in mangrove trees and commonly survive off the red leaves that grow there. They only descend to the ground when they need to expel waste such as urine or feces. However, due to their slow food intake, they can go up to seven days without defecating. 

Surprisingly, when the pygmy sloths do descend from the mangroves, it's also been noted that they can make quite good swimmers! 

Defense Mechanisms

Being as they are so slow, the three-toed pygmy sloth's primary defense forms are stealth and camouflage. 

To evade potential attackers, the pygmy sloth has developed a symbiotic relationship with a form of green algae that helps them blend in with the environment. This green algae poses no threat to the sloth's health and is most likely something the mother transfers to her offspring during childhood. 

From that point onwards, the algae grow and can cover portions of their fur. It further helps them to blend in with their surroundings. 

If a sloth cannot hide from a predator and gets attacked, it can often survive due to its firm grip, tough hide, and increased healing ability.

Mating and Breeding Habits

The pygmy three-toed sloths use loud calls to find potential mates when they reach adulthood. Until then, they generally remain alone. 

Currently, we don't know enough about the pygmy three-toed sloth's gestation period, but other three-toed sloths are pregnant for around 4 to 7 months before giving birth. 

The mother only ever bears one child at a time, and once birthed, she carries it around with her wherever she goes. This period of mothering for the newborn can last from anywhere between six months to a year. 

Why Are They So Small?

The pygmy three-toed sloth is likely so small due to a phenomenon called “Island Dwarfism,” where a small environment causes a species' size to shrink over multiple generations. 

As a result of this, the pygmy sloth has become the smallest member of its genus. Due to their already small environment, habitat destruction is a significant threat to the pygmy three-toed sloths and their way of life. 

The mangrove trees where the pygmy three-toed sloth resides only cover an area of about 1.3-1.5km², and they are a fundamental reason why Island dwarfism has had such an effect on their genus. This habitat mustn't get any smaller as it could cause further issues for the species and possibly cause them to go extinct. 

It's for these reasons that the genus is on the IUCN red list as critically endangered. To stop this species from going extinct, we need to do everything we can to conserve their habitat. 

Threats from Environment, Humans, and Predators

A critical threat towards the pygmy three-toed sloth comes from logging and chopping down the mangrove trees that make up their habitat. 

Local indigenous peoples also occasionally hunt the creatures, and tourists or residents may use up the island's resources that the sloths may need. 

The current conservation efforts to protect the pygmy sloth are low, so more still needs to happen to protect this endangered species. 

Conservation: The Future for Pygmy Sloths

Currently, a field team led by Diorene Cabellos visits Escudo twice every year to monitor the pygmy sloths and their population. Cabellos and her team record the number of sloths on the island and take note of their activity and habitat. The team also works closely with local villages and communities to create a more sustainable use of Escudo's resources while maintaining the pygmy three-toed sloth's habitat. 

Hopefully, these steps will be the first of many to help preserve this species and ensure the pygmy three-toed sloth doesn't go extinct.