Endangered Species List Might Soon Include Pygmy Sloth

endangered species
The world’s smallest and rarest sloth, the three-toed pygmy, might soon be included on the endangered species list. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) recently announced that this small creature deserves protection under the Endangered Species Act. The pygmy sloth can only be located in one area of the world, a very small island known as Isla Escudo de Veraguas which is about 17 kilometers off the coast of Panama.

The three-toed pygmy sloth can be identified by its pale, brown and grey fur with a tint of green due to algae, and dark circles around its eyes, as well as its long forearms, and three toes. Because pygmy sloths are incredibly slow, their main defense against attackers is camouflage as well as their ability to heal themselves quickly. Typically, they go throughout their lives in solitude, only coming together to mate. The female sloth, however, will carry her child everywhere she goes for six months to a year after giving birth. The pygmy sloths are so named due to their small size, which is an example of insular dwarfism. Because they dwell on a tiny island with limited resources and food, they have adapted in size over time to meet their needs.

On the island, the three-toed animals are found exclusively in the red mangrove forests where the sand meets the sea. Their exact population is unknown, but is decreasing. In 2012, surveyors had only located 79 of the pygmy sloths. Over the past 18 months, their population has been both rising and falling. 10 months ago, the Dallas World Aquarium zoo in Texas almost created an international incident over the endangered tree dwellers by trying to fly six pygmy sloths from Panama to the United States. The zoo had clearance from the Panamanian Government, however, they were met with protestors at the airport and eventually all of the three-toed sloths were sent back to Isla Escudo de Veraguas.

A nonprofit organization called the Animal Welfare Institute, filed an emergency petition in response to the incident in an effort to add the animals to the endangered species list. If protection was granted, it would require any zoo or organization to receive a permit from the FWS before importing a three-toed pygmy sloth into the United States, the same process mandated for any other endangered species overseas.

The FWS goes through a long process in order to get certain animals, like the pygmy sloth, included onto the endangered species list for protection. Similar to the three-toed sloth, the flat-tailed tortoise and spider tortoise will be evaluated on whether or not they might need protection under the endangered species list. Both are critically threatened species which are native to Madagascar and are vulnerable to illegal pet trade and habitat loss.

During the next 12 months, the FWS will conduct a status review of the pygmy sloth species, accumulate data over their population, as well as threats and ecology. Once that step has been completed, they will then declare whether or not protection is warranted, which could then begin another 15 month process before legal action is able to be enacted. If the three-toed pygmy sloths are deemed necessary for protection under the endangered species list, the tiny island of Isla Escudo de Veraguas may be able to keep their little oasis of petite tree huggers safe after all.

By Laura “Addi” Simmons

Scientific American
Our Endangered World

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