8th Mar 2013

Megatherium: The Great Beast

Imagine a sloth as tall an elephant and as heavy as one too, and you’re imagining the Megatherium—a genus of enormous ground sloths. They roamed Central and South America from the late Pliocene period (1.9 million years ago, after the decline of the dinosaurs) to as recently as the Holocene period (8,000 years ago, at the dawn of human civilisation). Fossils have been found from as far north as Texas to as far south as Argentina, and reconstructions show that the Megatherium were built extremely robustly: they had enormous claws, weighed almost 4 tonnes, and stood up to 6 metres tall (three times as high as a tall human!). In size, they were exceeded by only a few other land mammals such as mammoths, so they were undoubtedly one of the most impressive animals to walk the Earth. Their huge claws prevented them from putting their feet flat on the ground, so they must have walked like an anteater—on the sides of their feet. It’s believed that they were primarily herbivores, using their huge claws to reach up into the trees and drag down branches to crush in their powerful jaws, but evidence also suggests they supplemented their diet with meat too, feeding out of opportunity rather than hunting themselves—scavenging carcasses, perhaps by using their brawn to drive predators away from their kills. Their closest living relatives are tree sloths.

(Image Credit: 1, 2)

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