Sloth versus Cheetah

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.

via GIPHY

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.

 

via GIPHY

 

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.

 

Cheetah mother w 4.5 month old cubs on a termite mound, Ngorongoro Conservation Area, Tanzania. / Brown-throated sloth in the South Caribbean of Costa Rica. Photo: Suzi Eszterhas

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.

 

Cheetah Conservation Fund, Namibia.

 

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.

 

via GIPHY

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.

 

Cheetahs at Masai Mara Conservancy, Kenya. Photo: Suzi Eszterhas

 

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!

Know your Sloth Predators: The Great Harpy Eagle

Know your Sloth Predators: The Great Harpy Eagle

Harpy Eagles Quick Facts

  • Biggest claws of any bird
  • Can lift their own body weight in prey
  • Females are much larger than males
  • They mate for life
  • Chicks grow so fast that parents can care for only one at a time
  • Broad wings give them aerial agility in the thick jungles
  • The largest bird of Central America

The Harpy Eagle holds the crown as the most powerful eagle in the world – and it also happens to be the sloth’s main predator! With talons larger than a grizzly bear and a grip strong enough to crush a human arm, you can see why sloths take camouflage so seriously. Here we explore the terrifying world of the Harpy Eagle and explain how protecting sloths also means protecting these magnificent birds!

A living myth

These eagles are named after the harpies of Greek mythology who were depicted as fearful, winged beasts with women’s heads. Known for their cruelty and destructive nature, they were nicknamed, the “Hounds of Zeus.

 

Photos: Animals LibraryFio, Second photo: kabeza

 

It’s not surprising that in some areas of Latin America, stories and local legends still exist about witches living on the tops of tall trees. For those few fortunate enough to see a harpy eagle in person, they do look like the silhouette of a robed person sitting on a branch, dressed in black, white, and grey.

 

harpy eagle
Photo: leon_moore_nature_experience

Claws as big as a grizzly bear’s

Unlike the creatures of Greek mythology, harpy eagles (Harpia harpyja) are very real and rank among the largest birds in the world. They can weigh up to 5 kilos (11 lbs) and females are often twice the size of their mates. They are also some of the most powerful birds: with the ability to lift prey the size of monkeys, sloths, or even a baby deer!

These massive birds of prey can be 3.5ft/1m tall and have an impressive wingspan of 6.5ft/2 meters! Unlike other raptors, they rarely soar through the canopy of the rainforest and instead prefer to move from tree to tree.

Harpy eagles have thick, powerful legs, keen eyesight, and keen hearing. Like some owls, the harpy eagle has what’s called a “facial disk” of feathers around its neck that turns its head into a radar dish, focusing sound and aiding in the eagle’s sharp hearing. This is an unusual trait in a diurnal bird, but harpy eagles are unusual birds!

 

With a grip strength up to 10x higher than humans: 13cm of pure raptor power. / Photo: DecorahPagent

It’s dinner time!

Harpy eagles don’t hunt every day because they can feed on the same kill for several days in a row. Their bodies have adapted to tolerate meat that has spent several days in the hot environment of the tropical forest. Because they don’t need to eat every day, they can actually spend an entire week or more without ingesting any food!

Although harpies prefer to use their nimble flying abilities to hunt tree-dwelling animals, such as sloths, monkeys, iguanas, and other birds, they can also prey on ground dwellings species such as coatis, large rodents, deer, or wild pigs. They have also been observed to eat parrots, porcupines, coatimundis, raccoons, black vultures, and foxes.

 

harpy eagle sloth
A harpy eagle catching a sloth. @LaSalle museum of natural sciences, Costa Rica

They make great parents

Harpy eagles reach adulthood when they are about five years old. Like a lot of bird species, they mate for life, which, for a harpy eagle could mean 25 to 30 years! Once an individual finds a partner, they build a nest in one of the tallest trees in the forest.

Both parents participate in the building of the nest, which is 2 meters (6 ft) in diameter and more than 40 cm (1 ft) deep. Two adult humans could easily fit in the nest! The female lays two eggs, and usually only one of the chicks survives.

Harpy eagle chicks are little balls of grey and white fluff that start off so small they could fit into a human hand, but quickly grow to reach their impressive adult size in only five or six months, after which they begin to fly. The parents look after their offspring for the first two years until they become a juvenile. At four or five years old the eagles are adults and will begin looking for a mate of their own.

 

The relationship between sloths and harpy eagles

Harpy Eagles are what scientists, biologists, and zoologists call an “umbrella species“. Just like several people are protected by one umbrella under the rain, different species of wildlife can also be protected by conserving one particular species.

Harpy eagles depend upon a healthy population of monkeys and sloths. Therefore, in order to safeguard the future of this raptor we must protect these species. By protecting harpy eagles, we conserve the amazing rainforest in which they live, which is also the home of sloths, monkeys, and many more incredible creatures.

 

Conservation status

Unfortunately, according to IUCN Red List, the population of harpy eagles is declining all over the continent.  It’s hard to accurately determine their population numbers. Some conservationists estimate that there are between 10,000 to 50,000 individuals remaining, although the data is still insufficient. In some countries, the species is considered extinct. The Harpy Eagle is near threatened or vulnerable in most areas of South America, and critically endangered in Central America.

In Brazil, they have been pushed out of the Atlantic Rainforest, though they exist still in some remote parts of the Amazon. The actual number of harpy eagles in Brazil is currently unknown. They are only found in Mexico in the Chiapas in the Selva Zoque regions and are so rare in Costa Rica that there have only been a couple of sightings in the last decade; they are possibly extinct in the country.

 

harpy eagle home range
Home range of harpy eagle

 

Big predators usually require large territories to provide all of their needs: hunting, mating, etc. Habitat loss, logging, and the effects of the climate crisis are undoubtedly the biggest threats to harpy eagles. Trophy hunting, poaching, and trafficking for the illegal pet trade are also big issues. Some people kill them because they fear that the harpy eagle could hurt them, their children or their livestock. As mentioned earlier, there are a lot of misconceptions and mysticism surrounding these raptors.

via GIPHY

 

However not all hope is lost: several organizations across the continent are working hard to conserve and protect harpy eagles. The Peregrine Fund has a fantastic project that breeds harpy eagles in captivity and releases them into the wild in Panama. You can also read this great article about the experiences of Ph.D. Eduardo Alvarez Cordero in Venezuela – one of the first people to study harpy eagles.

There are even a few local traditions that may help this magnificent bird: some South American cultures consider it bad luck to cut down the kapok tree in which they nest. The harpy eagle has been named the national bird of Panama, features on the Venezuelan 2,000 bolívares Fuertes note, and was even the inspiration for Dumbledore’s pet phoenix in the Harry Potter film series.

 

harpy eagle
Photo: Jitze Couperus

 

A witch of the rainforest, a mythological creature, an inspiration for movie characters. Harpy eagles not only capture our imagination but are indispensable to the health of our tropical ecosystems.

 

Thunderbird from Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Photo: Gavin

 

-Cecilia Pamich