Megatherium

Giant Ground Sloth Facts

The giant ground sloth lived during the ice ages and there were many different types of ground sloths, all of which are extinct today. Following is an interesting collection of giant ground sloth facts, specifically to help kids learn all about this amazing ancient animal. The ground sloth that was the biggest in size was known as ‘megatherium americanum’, which basically means ‘huge animal from America’. It belonged to the Bradypodidae family. They were actually members of the Pleistocene Megafauna – which is a name for large-sized mammals that existed during the Pleistocene period. The Pleistocene spanned from about 2.5 million years until around 10 thousand years ago.

They were once very common in the Americas, especially in the South American region. They were spread out quite widely over a huge region- from Patagonia to Alaska. However, research shows that the last of the ground sloths went into extinction approximately 10,000 years ago when humans began colonizing the Americas.

Basic Description of the Giant Ground Sloth

The Megatherium is said to have weighed about as much as a modern large-sized elephant. It had huge claws, long dark hair and could walk on its hind legs- very much like a bear. If it stood on its hind legs, it became approximately twenty feet tall or a bit over 6 metres. This was close to twice the height of a modern elephant

Model of a Species of Megatherium

 

Photo Credit: Angela Marie Henriette

Where Did the Giant Ground Sloth Live?

They usually lived in woodland or grassy areas in the South American region. Studies, which were conducted have shown that about 10,000 years ago, the megatherium ground sloth was actually an endemic species of South America. They, somehow, adapted to arid, temperate and semi-arid environments.

Megatherium

 

Photo Credit: Chris Waigl

What Did the Giant Ground Sloths Eat?

Many experts believe that the giant ground sloth was a herbivore and that it fed on leaves found on low tree branches and bushes. The leaves that they commonly fed on were agaves, yuccas and common grasses. They possessed large, sharp and very dangerous claws that were actually mainly used for stripping leaves and bark from trees. Most scientists believe that their diet consisted of leaves, grasses, insects, tubers, shoots, fruits and sometimes even carrion.

There is evidence which suggests that they were, indeed, herbivores. This evidence consists of the fact that their teeth were extremely small and blunt- not capable of cutting into the flesh of other animals that were smaller in size.

The giant ground sloths used their simple teeth to grind the food that they bit into before swallowing it. Studies show that the sloth’s stomach was able to digest fibrous and coarse food.

Giant Ground Sloth

Photo Credit: Carl Malamud

How Did the Giant Ground Sloth Become Extinct?

Research has proven that the giant ground sloth existed mainly during the ice ages and there are a variety of theories concerning its extinction. One of the most popular theories is that it was basically the rapid climatic changes that killed them as they were not able to adapt quickly. Another theory is that hunters from Alaska killed them as they needed sustenance in order to continue their exploration of the North American region.

Some scientists believe that the southern ground sloths were used to living among herbivores and had not learnt to watch out for dangerous carnivores while travelling north. Another hypothesis suggests that there may have been a terrible disease that affected all the giant ground sloths and killed them off slowly.

However, none of these theories can be proved completely, beyond all possible doubt, as there were no reliable written records kept at the time by environmentalists or scientists.

Today we are lucky enough to have their distant relatives the two-toed and three-toed Sloths

Skeleton Sketch of Megatherium

Image Credit: Biodiversity Heritage Library

Interesting facts:

  • The megatherium americanum was one of the largest mammals that ever lived.
  • They were about 20 feet long and 13 feet tall (on four legs).
  • They weighed almost 4 tons and still managed to walk on their hind legs and support their huge frame.

More Giant Ground Sloth Facts For Kids

 

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