Sloth Versus Jaguar

Sloth Versus Jaguar

The humble sloth vs the mighty jaguar, how do these two mysterious mammals compare?

Before we start, this is not one of those “versus” blogs where we speculate about who would win in a violent, face-to-face, no-holds-barred, single combat style hot dog eating contest, because, really, we can all guess how that would go.

Sloths don’t eat hot dogs, and jaguars follow a strict gluten-free diet, and everyone knows it’s cheating to skip the buns. Plus, the jaguar’s ability to deliver a killing bite straight through the cranium of disapproving officials tends to skew the judging a bit.


So do the tropic’s cutest vegan and obligate carnivore have anything in common? 

It turns out they do. For starters, they are both native to the Americas. The jaguar came over the Bearing Strait land bridge some 130,000 years ago and migrated south, where they met the sloth coming north out of South America (the sloth was here first, for the record. By about 60 million years). Both animals really like tropical forests, though the jaguar has a bit more tolerance for cooler, dryer climates.


sloth versus jaguar


Another thing that sloths and jaguars might get together to complain about (besides the inherent unfairness of hot dog eating contests) would be how lonely it can feel to be misunderstood.

Humans sometimes think sloths are lazy, diseased, or barely struggling to survive, instead of appreciating that they are really highly efficient, healthy, have great symbiotic algae and bacteria, and have been doing this all longer than most mammals have even existed.

The jaguar might commiserate with how often they are seen as ruthless, man-eating killing machines. In fact, jaguars are the least likely of all the big cats to attack humans, and about 1000 times less likely to trip up their pet humans while going down the stairs than the harmless-looking house cat.


jaguar resting
Fishermen watching jaguar resting on riverbank, Cuiaba River, Brazil / Photo: Suzi Eszterhas


Jaguars and sloths both like trees far more than they like humans, who have this annoying habit of cutting down all the trees, and both animals like to swim. The sloth actually moves faster in the water than in the forest, and the jaguar is known for hunting in rivers.


jaguar swimming
Jaguar crossing river / Photo: Suzi Eszterhas

Very strong bites

Both the sloth and jaguar have surprisingly strong bites. Did we mention the skull-crushing ability of the jaguar yet? They are the only feline to kill their prey in this way, and it turns out to be a devastatingly effective way to both dispatch their dinner and intimidate the heck out of the rest of the animal kingdom. Apex predator, indeed!

Sloths don’t need to dispatch anything faster or tougher than a leaf, but they have some very sharp caniniforms in their mouth for doing so. Caniniforms–for everyone out there who isn’t a biologist or a really big tooth nerd–are like canines, but we can’t call them that because Xenarthrans have weird teeth, and we don’t want to get our dentition confused. 

sloth and jaguar bite teeth

Size does matter

For all their similarities, sloths and jaguars do have a few small differences. For example, the jaguar is the biggest cat in the Americas (and the third biggest in the world), weighing in at up to 96 kg (over 200 lbs), whereas the biggest sloths are long extinct. Today’s sloths can weigh up to 11 kg (24 lbs), but loose up to a third of that weight when they go the bathroom.


A small number of cousins

There are six living species of sloths. Four of them belong to the genus Bradipus — three-fingered sloths–brown-throated sloth (Bradypus variegatus), pygmy sloth (Bradypus pygmaeus), pale throated sloth (Bradypus tridactylus), and maned sloth (Bradypus torquatus). The remaining two belong to the genus Choloepus–the two-fingered sloths–hoffmann’s two-fingered sloth (Choloepus hoffmanni) and linnaeus’s two-fingered sloth (Choloepus didactylus). All of them live in the Americas.

distribution map of sloths

Jaguars belong to the genus Panthera of which there are only five species: jaguars (Panthera onca), lions (Panthera leo), tigers (Panthera tigris), leopards (Panthera pardus),  and the snow leopard (Panthera uncia). These big cats live on every continent in the world except Antarctica. 

How do scientists study them? 

Jaguars have been studied in the wild since the late 1970’s, whereas sloths have only really been studied in the wild in the last 12 years. Compared with other cat species, jaguars are still relatively unknown cats.

jaguar collar
Female with a GPS collar at Esteros del Iberá Wetlands, Argentina / Image Tompkins Conservation

Both sloths and jaguars like to hide from researchers, and to combat this, researchers try to tag jaguars with VHF (Very High Frequency) collars or GPS systems. Sloth researchers use VHF collars since GPS technology is not yet realiable to study sloths.


sloth with a radio tracking collar
The radio-tracking collar doesn´t affect the abilities of the sloths to survive in the wild.

Who lives longer?

The sloth also lives longer than the jaguar, with the oldest known sloths living almost 50 years (In captivity), whereas jaguars rarely live longer than 11 years in the wild, though captive individuals may double that.

The time left to these amazing species must not be measured in individual lifetimes but in generations. A human may live for a century, and we hope that our grandchildren’s grandchildren have the same opportunity to marvel at the majesty of these creatures as we do.

What are we doing to save jaguars?

There is a project in Esteros del Iberá Wetlands, Argentina–the first of its kind in the Western Hemisphere–to reintroduce the jaguar. The jaguar is critically endangered in Argentina, with only 200 to 300 individuals left in the wild. Jaguars used to thrive in this area but were hunted to extinction in the last century. So far the project has reintroduced six Jaguars since its inception in 2015.



 -Ames Reeder

Urban Sloth Project Assistant


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