Sloth vs Armadillo
In today’s edition of “Sloths vs” we bring you the final, the long-awaited, the last but never least of the Xenarthran Superorder, the armadillo!
Are sloths and armadillos related? Yes!
Like all Xenarthrans, armadillos hail from South America, where they diverged from our furry friends the anteaters and sloths about 60 million years ago—give or take a few million. The cingulate (plural for cingulata, which is the name of the order) are so-called because they are “the ones with armor” as opposed to the pilosa, which are the “ones with fur”.
Sloths, unsurprisingly, are part of the “ones with fur” whereas armadillos and their extinct relatives the glyptodonts and pampatheres are “the ones with armor”. Sloths are related to armadillos, but not as close as they are to anteaters!
Where do they live?
Although sloths and armadillos originated in South America, once South America met North America via the isthmus of Panama, sloths and armadillos used the newly formed land bridge to migrate north, though the armadillos went much further, and can be even found as far north as parts of the United States.
Armadillos are particularly prevalent in Paraguay, Argentina, and Brazil for those wishing to see them in the wild. Sloths live in the canopy of trees, most armadillos live on the ground, and some species live underground, just like their ancestors!
Armadillos, like sloths, prefer their own company.
Other than raising her young (which in some cases consist of four identical quadruplets, and in others can range from 1 to 12 pups), the armadillo lives in solitary splendor.
Do sloths sleep more than armadillos?
In spite of the sloths’ reputation, armadillos actually sleep far more! While sloths clock in about nine hours per day, armadillos actually sleep about 16 hours per day, and maybe more in captivity. Lugging around all those boney plates must be pretty exhausting! Giant armadillos are only active on average 5-6 hours a night!
What do they eat?
As compared to sloths’ leaf-only diet, armadillos have a much more diverse diet which will vary between species. Some may eat a few plants and sometimes fruit; the majority feed mostly on insects. Some prefer ants and termites, and others will eat a large variety of creepy-crawlies, up to and including worms, spiders, and scorpions.
So if you don’t care for spiders and scorpions, you’ll love armadillos for being one of their natural predators! The giant armadillo can eat up to 200,000 ants in one go, though there is no record of how many spiders they can get rid of.
Claws for digging and climbing
All xenarthrans have large claws that help them in various ways; anteaters use them to dig up ant and thermite nests, armadillos use them to dig burrows, and sloths use them to climb trees and hang onto branches. Xenarthran’s claws are very strong.
Sloth claws act as their fingers and species such as the giant armadillo have large, scimitar-shaped foreclaws. The third front claw of the giant armadillo is greatly enlarged and can reach lengths of over 20 cm (7.9 in)!
Curl up and roll up
Another behavior sloths and armadillos have in common is their tendency to curl up in response to danger. When they are stressed or threatened, armadillos roll up into an armored ball, hiding their soft parts. While sloths are not protected with keratin armor, they still sometimes curl up on themselves to protect their heads. Researchers call this behavior “hunkering”.
How are they studied?
Sloths are difficult animals to study in the wild. Some species of armadillos are less cryptic (they don’t hide in trees all the time), but others are rare, nocturnal, and harder to find than you’d think, especially in the case of the giant armadillo.
Unlike sloths, which do not do very well in captivity, armadillos are sometimes bred and used as research animals. The nine-banded armadillo’s ability to produce genetically identical quadruplets is useful to researchers who want to eliminate genetic variables, and as one of the few animals that contract systematic leprosy, they are often used to model the disease and test cures. This seems a bit unfair to the armadillos themselves, as they only got leprosy after humans came over from Europe and gave it to them!
Threats in common
Both sloths and armadillos suffer from roads in their territory and collisions with vehicles. In the case of sloths, this is because they move very slowly and can’t outrun or dodge cars, and in the case of armadillos, it is sometimes because they jump right into them. Unlike sloths, which famously cannot jump at all, the nine-banded armadillo can leap over a meter (3 to 4 feet) into the air! Unfortunately, this isn’t high enough to clear a speeding vehicle, and if we want to save them from cars, we’re just going to have to find a way for armadillos to live away from roads.
Both armadillos and sloths can be bothered by dogs. However, many species of armadillos can scurry quickly away into their burrow. The ability to turn into an armored ball, in the case of the three-banded armadillo, or scurry quickly away, in the case of most others, protects them a bit, but dogs can still injure them. They suffer greatly from habitat fragmentation and hunting. Unlike sloth meat, in some regions of South America armadillos are considered a tasty treat.
How vulnerable are they?
Happily, most of the 22 species of armadillos are not (yet) endangered. The giant armadillo and the Andean hairy armadillo are both listed by the IUCN as “vulnerable”, and there is a lack of data about how endangered the giant armadillo really is… much like most sloths.
What can we do?
The Giant Armadillo Conservation Program and the Instituto de Conservação de Animais Silvestres, based out of Brazil, are helping to conserve this shy giant armadillo and the ecosystems they depend on. Much like SloCo, they are dedicated to researching and understanding wildlife so as to help animals and local humans coexist.
In fact, both Gabriel Massocato from The Giant Armadillo Conservation Project and Dr. Rebecca Cliffe from The Sloth Conservation Foundation won the 2022 Future For Nature award to help save their respective species! In the end, the more we understand our fellow earthlings, the better we can all get along.
Special Thanks to Arnaud Debiez and his team from Instituto de Conservação de Animais Silvestres