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Meet the Unexpected Monster of the Ancient Americas

By Khristine Faith November 05, 2020 0 comments

Once upon a time, a massive creature roamed the Americas. With gigantic claws and confusingly large limbs, its enormous size puzzled and even struck fear into the hearts of American explorers. What was this giant creature? And what does it have to do today with, of all things, avocados? This, my friends, isn’t some fairy tale, but a mystery you’ll want to come along with!

All this talk of sharp claws and massive sizes may have you wondering, what kind of creatures are we talking about!? Well, my friends, we’re not talking about giant wolves, lions, or bears. No, these are the fossil remains of a creature you’d never expect to find in North America today: sloths.

Sloths? Those slow things that live in trees that can barely do anything? Well, yes, actually. While the sloths we know today are still fascinating, their ancient relatives once dominated an impressive range of habitats across North America, from the mountains to the sea! And yes, this is one tale that’ll have you looking at your avocados with a little more awe.

Move over, mastodons and saber-toothed tigers, there’s a new favorite ancient megafauna in town: the giant sloth!

Roaming around the Americas for 35 million years, these sloths were an impressive lot! They climbed, swam, burrowed, and roamed, filling every possible niche around them. Some even grew to the size of elephants! Others adapted to life at sea, eating the vegetation that grew along the coast and using their claws to help secure them to the ocean floor against the waves. 1

So, what happened to these giant creatures? If they were so prolific across the continent, where did they all go?

Why, when there were once 80-90 different genera (that’s the category right above species) of sloths, do we now find ourselves with just 6 remaining species? Oh, and what do those giant sloths have to do with avocados again?

Prepare to be amazed, and have a better appreciation for the sloths we still have with us, after you watch this great video from TED-Ed!

 

If you are a curious person or know of one, TED-Ed is one of the best YouTube channels out there to explore. With content that spans literature, archaeology, science, and so much more, it’s the place to go to learn more about the world!

Oh, and if you want to check out a video that goes into even greater depth about the incredible number of ancient sloth species I mentioned at the top of the article, give this video from PBS Eons a watch! It’s a truly fantastic look at the diversity of sloth species that once lived on this planet.

What do we learn from the species that have disappeared?

There has to be a reason why kids love dinosaurs, why some of us humans adore roaming the halls of natural history, and why we’ll spend hours watching movies about bringing ancient animals back to life. Could it be that we are so enthralled by these long-ago species because they allow us to imagine the world we know in new ways?

What if mastodons roamed the plains of North America as elephants do in Africa today? What if that sound crashing through the woods wasn’t a moose, but, instead, a giant sloth?

These animals seem fantastical, but in the span of life on this earth, we are still so close to them. Our ancient ancestors would have even walked beside them in some cases! We don’t have to be children who still have their license to imagine fantastical creatures to be enthralled by giant sloths, giant armadillos, or dinosaurs. As adults, we can see these skeletons and let our imagination and our curiosity run free, too.

So, take a moment to settle back into your childhood sense of wonder and delight at the unknown as you enjoy a few of these articles, next. You’re sure to be uplifted, and reminded that curiosity is a muscle we need to flex a little more often!


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