Ground Sloths: Giants of the Ancient World

Normal tree sloths are weird enough as they are. With their round, marble-like eyes, big pink snouts and curved, long-nailed claws (resembling the “god’s” claws in the movie 10,000 BC) all topped with a mop of long hippy-blond fur, there’s definitely no other creature alive who looks like a sloth.

(Though to be fair, I think they’re wicked cute, and much more adorable—and likely much less annoying—than the one portrayed by Sid in Ice Age.)

But it wasn’t long ago—say, 35 million years ago or so—that the tree sloth would have been seen as a pretty tame animal compared to his gigantic relative, the ground sloth.  Considered one of the largest mammals to have ever roamed the earth, the ground sloth had over 80 genera –the largest of which, known as the Megatherium (“Great Beast”), was the size of an elephant and weighed five tons.

And that’s not all; when this sloth was on his hind legs—such as when reaching for hard-to-reach leaves on trees—he could be twenty feet tall, or twice the height of an elephant!

That’s not the kind of sloth I’d like to run into on vacation—herbivore or not. And while most researches say the enormous talons the creatures had were used to strip leaves and bark, others disagree. Some scientists say that because of the Megatherium’s arm size—shorter, rather than longer like modern sloths—it may have used its claws to kill rather than to cut plants; so ancient sloths may have been carnivorous after all.

If this is true, it’s likely that the giant fed on the Glyptodon, or type of giant armadillo; in fact, many ground sloth remains have been found nearby those of giant armadillo fossils.

Cryptozoologists believe that the giant sloth may have survived to this day. Native people of Patagonia claim to have hunted such a creature, and that the nocturnal beast had hide so strong that their arrows had difficulty penetrating its skin. Though they were able to produce samples of the hide, carbon dating proved it to be over 5,000 years old—likely preserved by conditions in the cave it was found in.

Though there’s no proof that ground sloths live today—and they are presumed extinct by the scientific community—there is proof that they lived… well, where we do! Remains have been found from Minnesota to Iowa, making it very likely that a ground sloth may have walked exactly where we walk today.