Life in slow mo: sloths and anteaters

Sloths and anteaters are truly strange beasts: strange shapes, strange to look at, and strange in the world as their order is exclusively found on the American continent and they now move in limited areas. This order – known as Pilosa – is characterized by the absence of many teeth; the few that it does have grow ceaselessly its entire life, without enamel, and without needing milk teeth. Both anteaters and sloths are found in the Mashpi Reserve, with a couple of species of each.

The beautiful, unhurried and hidden sloths are unique to the tropical American forests: they live here, and here alone. In Ecuador there are two families of sloths with three species and the Mashpi Reserve is home to two of those species. Sloths, with long claws, are mammals that are specialised in living in trees where they move slowly, solitarily searching for leaves, branches and buds.

They are very difficult to see as they stay mainly still and move very short distances each day, but they form a part of the forest scenery, camouflaged among the humid tropical green.

How do they manage such excellent camouflage? They have made a pact of symbiosis with algae: their fur is the ideal habitat for green algae that show their appreciation for the home by giving the sloths a hiding place in their own skin, invisible to predators.

The three-toed sloth (Bradypus variegatus) is found in Mashpi. It has three long claws on its extremities and can turn its head 270°. It is more abundant than all other species but stays absolutely camouflaged and still among the trees, which is why it needs a hawkish eye to spot one.

Anteaters also have two families and four species in Ecuador, two of which are in the Mashpi Reserve. They are characterised by a long head, almost like a tube, with no teeth, and a small mouth through which they poke their tongue out to feed themselves. They love ants and other insects that live in colonies, like termites and bees.

The most common species in Mashpi is the western anteater (Tamandua mexicana), a termite fanatic. It is active during the day and night, on the ground and in the trees, very slow and clumsy as it meanders. In Mashpi they are frequent visitors to the camera traps (Link – Proyecto Cámaras Trampa) where they have been observed carrying their young on their backs.

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