Sloth versus Cheetah
Ready! Get set! Go….odbye!
It’s a good thing this isn’t a race, because if it were, it wouldn’t be much of a contest between the slowest mammal and the fastest; after all, the sloth is outpaced by some species of plants, whereas the cheetah travels at speeds only matched by humans on the freeway.
In fact, if they were vehicles, cheetahs would be the muscle cars of the animal world, whereas sloths would be kind of like those floating innertubes that go around Lazy Rivers at theme parks.
If not speed, then do these two animals have anything at all in common?
Are sloths and cheetahs related?
Cheetahs are members of the family Felidae, most closely related to jaguarundis and cougars and somewhat more distantly related to the common house cat. Sloths and cheetahs last shared an ancestor about 90 to 100 million years ago, before Tyranosaurus Rex first terrorized the Earth.
Both are in the mammalian infraclass Placentalia (an infraclass is in between a class—mammalia—and a clade—Boreoeutheria, for the cheetah, and Atlantogenata, for the sloths), but other than that they aren’t very close. Sloths are an old species, having been around for some 30+ million years, whereas cheetahs are comparatively young species at only about 3 to 3.5 million years old.
Savannahs and Jungles
Sloths and cheetahs live on completely different halves of the world: in fact, that’s what the two names of the clades Boreoeutheria and Atlantogenata refer to. Sloths like to live in tall trees of the Central and South American jungles, whereas cheetahs like to live in savannahs, mountains, and valleys of Africa and Iran with thin vegetation. It turns out when you can go from 0 to 60 mph in under 6 seconds, trees become obstacles very quickly. Sloths, on the other hand, go from 0 to 60 in approximately never and are therefore better adapted to the forest.
Are they social animals?
Cheetahs were once thought to be solitary animals, much like sloths, but recent observations have revealed that cheetahs actually have a rather complex social structure. Sometimes cheetahs will be loners, but males frequently associate in groups called “coalitions”, usually but not always consisting of siblings.
Females live with their current litter of kittens and will often be friendly with their daughters, sisters and mothers. Sloths will peacefully share the same tree with other sloths, but almost never interact with each other outside of mother-child pairs and very brief mating encounters.
Do sloths sleep more than cheetahs?
Cheetahs may move faster than sloths, but they make up for it by sleeping more! Cheetahs spend most of their day resting (when they aren’t setting land speed records, that is), and about 12 hours out of every day is dedicated to snoozing.
This is still better than the common house cat, who sleeps up to 16 hours a day, but much lazier than that sloth, who sleeps only 8 to 10 hours out of 24.
What do they eat?
Like all cats, cheetahs are carnivores. They eat small to medium sized prey, mostly ungulates (hooved mammals), but will occasionally eat rabbits, livestock, and melons. Scientists think the melons are eaten for their water content, which can be scarce in some of the more arid areas of the cheetah’s habitat.
Sloths only eat melons in captivity, and they probably aren’t good for them. One dietary preference that sloths and cheetahs have in common is that neither one eats humans! The cheetahs probably could if they wanted to, but happily for us, they just want to be left alone.
How do scientists study cheetahs and sloths?
Humans have long admired the sleek, speedy cheetah, and historical records of them go back for millennia. In fact, the most difficult thing about the history of the cheetah is human’s annoying habit of referring to all big cats with a few interchangeable names: basically every cat that doesn’t wear a collar and go by Mrs. Tiddles has been called, at some point, a “leopard”, making specific details hard to discern.
Scientists who study cheetahs are challenged by the large territories occupied by the big cats, which are up to 7,063 km2 (2,727 sq mi)! However, cheetahs are much less cryptic than sloths—just look for the only thing on the savannah streaking by at up to 128 km/h (80 mph)—and cheetahs have benefited from a very good PR campaign since the 1970s, though they are still killed for their fur and interactions with livestock in much of Africa. Sloths, on the other hand, have only recently come to the interest of scientists, social media, and the general public.
What problems do they face and what is their conservation status?
As with so many wild animals, both sloths and cheetahs face a lot of difficulties with habitat loss. Wild creatures need wild spaces, and you don’t get much more wild than either sloths or cheetahs! Habitat fragmentation is a particular problem for both animals, leading to dangerous levels of inbreeding.
Unlike sloths, cheetahs are social enough to tame, though they don’t do very well in captivity. Specifically, cheetahs rarely mate in captivity, and their kittens have a very high mortality rate—which is probably the reason they have never been fully domesticated. Both animals suffer from illegal trafficking and the pet trade, though public campaigns have reduced this considerably for cheetahs in recent decades.
The IUCN lists cheetahs as “vulnerable”, whereas the Endangered Species Act goes one step further and lists them as “endangered”. Most sloth species are listed (probably incorrectly) as “least concern”, though both cheetahs and sloths have species that are critically endangered. The pygmy sloth falls into this category, and the Asiatic cheetah has only 12 individuals left in the wild.
What can we do to help cheetahs and sloths?
Sloths and cheetahs are both resilient, adaptable animals that can thrive if only given the chance to do so! The African Wildlife Foundation and the Cheetah Conservation Fund are two organizations working with these amazing cats, and of course, your friends here at SloCo dedicate our days to saving sloths. The most important thing YOU can do is to support organizations that keep the wilderness intact, promote scientific initiatives that find peaceful compromises between humans and wildlife, and of course, never buy or handle wildlife that was never meant to be a pet.
No matter whether you identify with the speed and agility of the cheetah or the Pura Vida relaxation of the sloth, we have so much to learn from our fellow animals, and our world is always enriched by the amazing diversity that life brings us!