Pygmy Three-Toed Sloths

Sloth - Photo by Bryson Voirin

Classified as critically endangered and believed to have a rapidly declining population and habitat area, pygmy three-toed sloths (Bradypus pygmaeus) are entirely native to the island of Escudo de Veragua, off the Caribbean coast of Panama.

Pygmy sloths are notably smaller than other types of sloths. An adult pygmy three-toed sloth weighs between 5.5 and 7.7 pounds and measures 19 to 21 inches—including a tail length of 1.8 to 2.4 inches. While a relatively small animal, their external ear canals are conspicuously large. These features are thought to be indicative of a relatively rapid evolution of a new species in an isolated, island habitat. Very little is known about their lifespan.

Pygmy three-toed sloths have been primarily recorded in the red mangrove forests surrounding the island. These sloths mainly feed on mangrove leaves, making individual sloths and the entire population at risk when these forests are logged.

Ongoing destruction and fragmentation of its habitat, exploitation for food, the presence of feral cats, and lack of sufficient legal protection for the pygmy three-toed sloth and its habitat have continually threatened the sloth and resulted in a decrease in its population. While its native island is uninhabited, seasonal visitors (i.e., fisherman, lobster divers, and indigenous people) have been known to hunt the sloths. The sloth’s recent rise in popularity has also made it a target for capture and export for public display. An attempt to export eight pygmy sloths by the Dallas World Aquarium in 2013 was thwarted after local environmentalists, police, indigenous groups, and Panamanian authorities negotiated the surrender of the sloths from aquarium representatives; at least two of the captured sloths died prior to release.  

The most recent data on these sloths is disheartening, indicating there may be only 48 left—a significant decrease from the last estimate of 79 in 2013. The species has been listed as “critically endangered” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List since 2006. The species is not currently listed as endangered under the US Endangered Species Act (ESA); however, AWI petitioned the US Fish and Wildlife Service in November 2013 to have the species listed, and received a positive 90-day finding on its petition. The Service is expected to make a 12-month finding on the petition in fiscal year 2017.  If listed, pygmy three-toed sloths would receive a host of protections available to other ESA-listed species, including but not limited to restrictions on take and trade.

To learn more, see:
USFWS Moving Slow on Sloth Protection and USFWS Warned of Lawsuit for Failing to Protect World’s Smallest Sloth