Sloth versus Snow Leopard

Sloth versus Snow Leopard

The sloth and the snow leopard (Panthera uncia) seem like two animals that have absolutely nothing in common. After all, they live on opposite sides of the planet from each other, prefer habitats that couldn’t be more different without being under water, and one is a small herbivore that eats leaves while the other is a large predator that eats whatever it wants.

Superficially, they couldn’t be more different animals, but we think that if the sloth and the snow leopard ever sat down to have a cup of tea together, they’d have more to talk about than you’d think!


Are they related?

Both animals are in the class Mammalia, subclass Theria, and infraclass Placentalia; this means they are both furry mammals that carry their young in their wombs and basically aren’t platypuses.

Other than that, they haven’t shared a common ancestor since the time of the dinosaurs. Although snow leopards live exclusively in the mountains of South and Central Asia, their ancestors evolved in the Americas, not so far from the South American ancestors of the sloth!


snow leopard
Facebook: Snow Leopard Conservancy / Photo: Rafael Kettsyan

Where do they live?

Sloths and snow leopards are both remote creatures that are difficult for scientists to study. The sloth lives deep in the hot trackless jungles of the New World, while the snow leopard lives high in the mountains of Asia, where the air is thin, dry, and cold.

Some populations of snow leopards also come down into the Gobi Desert following herds of wild sheep and goats. All of these regions are difficult for humans to navigate and study, and the animals that live there remain largely mysterious to science.

Though separated by a distance of over 15,000km (nearly 10,000 miles), both animals prefer habitats far off the beaten path!


snow leopard
Photo: Snow Leopard Conservancy

Do they make friends easily?

Like sloths, snow leopard territories overlap with each other, but neither animal interacts much with others of their kind except when mating.

Both sloth and snow leopard mothers raise their young on their own, a process that takes about a year for sloths and up to two years for snow leopards.

Young sloths will sometimes have a home range initially near their mothers, and young snow leopards will sometimes come back to visit before they are fully mature. Though sloths have a lot of tolerance for sharing trees with other sloths, they would likely identify with the snow leopards’ drive for independence.


snow leopard
Photo: Suzi Eszterhas


Who sleeps more?

The sloth has a reputation for sleeping a lot, but this reputation is owed to lazy human researchers, not to the sloths themselves! Sloths only sleep for eight to ten hours per day, whereas most cats sleep for 12-16 hours every day.

Scientists aren’t sure if snow leopards follow this pattern, because it is very hard to observe the elusive snow leopard all day long, but it is very likely that snow leopards actually sleep more than sloths.

Sloths even “cat-nap” more frequently than snow leopards do, with short rest periods throughout the day, whereas the snow leopard is primarily active during dawn and dusk, though they have also been observed during the late afternoon.


snow leopard

How about those tails?

This is one area where snow leopards and sloths couldn’t differ more! Snow leopards have long, thick, furry tails which they use as a rudder while running up and down mountains. They also use these tails as mufflers to wrap themselves up when the weather turns freezing cold.

Three-fingered sloths have short, stubby tails they only use when going to the bathroom, and they wouldn’t know what to do if the weather ever froze. Sloths would just turn instantly into popsicles; unlike the hot-blooded cats, they cannot regulate their temperature very well.


snow leopard tail
Photo: Suzi Eszterhas

Whos fur is thicker?

Sloth and snow leopards both have thick fur coats they depend on for survival. Like all mammals, thermoregulation is hugely important to their survival, and their fur is important insulation and camouflage.

The dense, beautiful snow leopard pelt is the longest and thickest of any felid. This fur is much sought after by humans, though hunting snow leopards is illegal in all 12 countries where they reside.

Sloth pelts, on the other hand, would never become a fashion statement for humans—only the sloths think that green algae, anti-cancerous fungi, and a whole colony of sloth moths count as haute couture!


snow leopar baby
Photo: Suzi Eszterhas

What do they do about humans?

The biggest concern that sloths and snow leopards have in common is their relationship to humans. Both animals are threatened by habitat loss, both animals and illegally hunted for the pet trade, and both animals suffer from human ignorance about their needs and habits.

Sloths are often mischaracterized as lazy and diseased, when in fact they don’t sleep much more than humans, and the anti-microbial properties of their fur have great potential for fighting diseases that threaten humans!

Snow leopards are incorrectly thought to be dangerous to humans and a threat to livestock, when in fact snow leopards are very shy and try to avoid confrontations with humans at almost all costs. These big cats would stay away from people if they had anywhere to go.



Neither sloths nor snow leopards make good pets, but luckily they both make excellent virtual adoptions! There are organizations all over the world fighting to understand and protect these awesome animals, such as  Snow Leopard Conservancy, and both benefit from humans that help spread awareness and fight for their right to exist.

One thing we’ve all got in common is this earth, and saving the world for one species saves it for us all!

Read More: Sloth versus Koala

Sloth Versus Koala

Sloth Versus Koala

September 26th is ‘Save the Koala Day’ and here at the Sloth Conservation Foundation we want to celebrate by sharing some of the differences and similarities between these marvelous marsupials and our beloved sloths. We would also like to shine a spotlight on organizations like Friends of the Koala based in Australia who work tirelessly to rescue, rehabilitate and release sick and injured koalas and protect their remaining habitat.


May be an image of ‎standing, outdoors and ‎text that says '‎ی oala the friends faw marley & templeton‎'‎‎
Photo: Friends of the Koala Facebook

The Lazy ‘Bears’?

As humans, we tend to make assumptions about things we don’t understand. When Europeans first landed in Australia and saw koalas, the assumption was made that these strange creatures were bears, which is not unsurprising with their rounded ears and button noses. So, they were named ‘Koala Bears’ – a rather unfortunate name considering koalas are actually marsupials, a far cry from any bear species).



Sloths share this misnomer, with their Spanish name, oso perezoso, directly translating to “lazy bear”. These two bear imposters share many similarities despite living and evolving continents apart. They also share many of the same misconceptions. In honor of September being Save the Koala month, Team Sloth is here to set the record straight on these non-bear brothers from another mother!


maned sloth brazil
This maned sloth (Bradypus torquatus) does look like a teddy bear / Photo: Cecilia Pamich

Are Sloths and Koalas related?

No! Although these animals do share some similarities, such as herbivorous diets and arboreal lifestyles, sloths and koalas developed these traits independently of each other. Sloths are mammals classified in the order of Pilosa. The closest relatives to the sloth are anteaters and armadillos – these three make up the extant Xenarthra superorder species and can be found in Central / South America.


Giant Anteater / Photo: Freepik


Koalas are marsupials from Australia. They are classified under the order Diprotodontia and are most closely related to wombats. Like all marsupials, the koala gives birth to underdeveloped young (called joeys) that crawl into their mothers’ pouches, where they will stay for the first six months of their lives. Sloth babies cling to their mother’s chest for approximately six months as well, but they are born fully developed with open eyes, teeth, and claws.


baby koala
7-month old baby Koala (Phascolarctos cinereus) peeking out the pouch of the mother / Photo: Suzi Eszterhas

Do Sloths and Koalas eat similar foods?

Leaf eaters unite! Not many animals can survive off of a diet that consists only of tree leaves, but koalas and sloths are two animals that can due to their specialized digestive systems.

The Koalas’ diet is limited to certain eucalyptus leaves and a few other related tree species such as Melaleuca, Callistemon, and Lophostemon. Koalas are unique in their ability to eat eucalyptus leaves which have high levels of cyanide and are toxic to most other animals.


koala eating leaf


Koalas have developed a special organ called a caecum which allows them to better process the toxins by utilizing bacteria that break the toxins down. Interestingly, they are not born with this bacteria. It is passed down from mother to offspring. 

Sloths have a slightly more varied diet and are known to eat from at least 90 different types of trees. Despite this variety, each individual sloth tends to have a very specific taste for only 7-12 individual trees – each sloth prefers a different selection! They are thought to rotate their favorite feeding trees in a cycle to prevent over-eating toxins in a singular type of leaves.


Pale-throated sloth eating leaves / Photo: Suzi Eszterhas

Who sleeps more?

Sloths may be the slowest mammals on earth, but they’re certainly not the laziest! It’s actually a common misconception that they sleep all day when in reality they sleep for an average of 8 – 10 hours a day in the wild.


sloth sleep
Hoffmann’s two-fingered Sloth (Choloepus hoffmanni) sleeping and hanging from a tree
/ Photo: Suzi Eszterhas

Koalas have them beat in the nap department, clocking in an impressive 18 to 22 hours of rest a day. The koala’s diet takes a lot of energy to digest so resting helps them conserve energy to do so. Sloths prefer to conserve energy expenditure with slow measured movements and unique evolutionary adaptations, instead of a high quantity of sleep.


koala sleeping
Koala (Phascolarctos cinereus) sleeping / Photo: Suzi Eszterhas

How did both sloths and koalas adapt to live in the trees?

Sloths have adapted to life upside-down with a suite of gravity-defying characteristics. These adaptations are essential when you need to spend up to 90% of your life upside down!

For most animals, being upside down all day would cause their internal organs to press down on their lungs and diaphragm, which would affect their ability to breathe. Sloths have developed a genius solution to this problem by evolving to have organs that are bound to their ribcage with special fibrous adhesions.


strong sloth
Sloths are so strong they can hang using one or two limbs! /Photo: Suzi Eszterhas

Koalas also have a fascinating adaptation for life in the treetops – they have developed two opposable thumbs! This makes it much easier for them to grip onto trees and navigate from branch to branch.


Who is slower?

Sloths hold the title as the slowest land mammals and move in a way that is very distinct to their species. At top speed, a three-fingered sloth can cover approximately 1 meter in 1.5 seconds, however, moving at this speed burns a lot of energy and so only happens in response to immediate danger.

Typically, a sloth will move upside down through the treetops at an average speed of just 3 seconds per meter. Even when threatened, the sloth’s natural reaction is to stay completely still (something Team Sloth refers to as ‘hunkering’ and is seen more in three-fingered sloths than two-fingered sloths).


Juvenile sloth and mother
A juvenile Thow-fingered sloth (Choloepus hoffmanni) in the same tree as its mother.



Koalas have the opposite reaction and can move surprisingly fast at a speed of 10.08 kilometers per hour. They are four times faster on the ground than in trees yet are still relatively agile in the canopy. Koalas tend to move more like primates and can even be seen leaping from branch to branch.



Can they swim?

While koalas may be faster on the ground, sloths are three times faster at swimming than they are at climbing. Swimming is a vital skill for some sloth species due to the abundance of water present in their damp habitats. Without the ability to swim, rivers would present major geographical obstacles, and falling into the water would mean certain death.



Koalas can also be seen swimming across rivers to access food sources. There is not much research published on how often they utilize this skill. It has sadly been reported that a unique issue for koalas is falling into people’s swimming pools and drowning, as while they are able to swim, they are unable to climb out.


How do sloths and koalas stay hydrated?

While the majority of their water intake comes from the leaves they eat, both sloths and koalas have been observed drinking water. On especially hot days, sloths can be seen drinking water by hanging off of vines and slurping from freshwater sources such as rivers. A new study has shown that koalas supplement their dietary water intake by licking streams of water off of tree trunks while it rains.


sloth drinking water
This photo is one of the first records of sloths drinking water from a river / Photo: Grant Nichols

Who has more friends?

Neither! Sloths and koalas both enjoy lives of solitude, only interacting with other members of their species when it’s time to mate. They often share home ranges with other members of their species and can even be found sharing trees. This is increasingly more common as the issue of habitat loss grows worse.


What dangers do they face?

Despite living on opposite sides of the world, these animals struggle with similar threats to their existence and wellbeing. Habitat loss is the number one concern for both species. As more humans move into less developed areas, animals are losing the trees that both feed and shelter them.



Some of these trees are being cleared to build roads which in turn presents another issue – both sloths and koalas are being hit by cars at incredibly high rates. While on the ground they are also in danger of dog attacks. A bacterial infection, chlamydia, is the leading cause of death in koalas. This disease is spread through sexual contact, just as it is with humans. It’s unknown why they are so susceptible to it, but it affects over 40% of the population.


baby sloth luna sol
Unfortunately, sometimes sloths are forced to crawl on the ground and carry their babies o their backs. These are Luna and Sol (Moon and Sun) and they are part of our Urban Sloth Project.


Koalas and sloths share a surprising amount of similarities for two mammals that live and evolved in very different parts of the world. They are both leaf-loving, tree-living animals who are incorrectly named after bears, but we can all agree the main similarity they share is how internationally adored they are.


-Sloth Team x Friends Of the Koala