Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Creature Feature: Megatherium.

Sloths are one of the most pathetic, yet adorable, creatures found in nature. They're so slow that algae has the chance to grow on their shaggy fur. The great majority of their time is spent asleep. They don't even have enough energy to properly be considered warm-blooded, making them right alongside naked mole rats in the "mammals that could be considered cold blooded" category.

Would you believe that sloths were once among the largest mammals on the planet?

Ah, Pleistocene megafauna, how we miss you. Megatherium was one of several giant ground sloths. All ground sloths are extinct, living roughly 2 million years ago. Rumor has them surviving all the way into the 1500's. Megatherium was native to South America- the same place where extant sloths live today. Different giant sloths lived in North America.

Megatherium was a giant sloth. By giant, we mean "as big as an elephant." No, seriously; people casually call this beast "elephant-sized." It weighed up to eight tons, and, if on its hind legs, stood at twice the size of an elephant. Mammoths were among the few things larger than Megatherium.  It was a big sloth.

Know what's really scary? This thing could have eaten meat. Paleontologists debate over whether this massive mammal ate meat or not, either by killing the prey itself or by scavenging kills of mega-preds like Smilodon. The bite indicates that its teeth cut as opposed to ground, and there are some limb attachments that make one wonder if it was really an herbivore. Most people think it ate leaves like a rather bulky giraffe. We could compromise and suppose that it was a sort of omnivore, but naahh. Let's stick with plant-eating behemoth for now.

Nobody really knows why Megatherium went extinct. As with nearly every giant mammal, human intervention is likely. A cataclysmic event like a meteor strike may also be to blame. Whatever the cause, the end result is just depressing:

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