Do Sloths Have Tails? The Complete Guide

It’s a common sight to find sloths hanging lazily on a tree branch munching on the barks and leaves. Sloths are one of the slowest mammals on record, and this is due to their laziness.

Most people tend to imagine sloths based on features such as their sharp claws, fur, black nose & extremely slow movement. So where is the tail? Still, wondering if sloths have tails or not? We have the answer you passionately seek. This article explains in great depth whether sloths have tails or not. 

So, do sloths have tails? Yes they do, sloths have tails but not in the way you may imagine. Most people tend to think of a tail in terms of a wagging tail of a dog or a coiled tail. The tails are so tiny, they look like snouts. Because of the size of the tail, most people miss them, they are mostly hidden in the sloth’s fur. 

The size of a sloth’s tail depends on the species. Two-toed sloths have shorter tails than three-toed sloths, about 2 to 3cm more. 

To put this in perspective, we need to understand the evolution of sloths, the role the tail plays, and many intriguing factors about them. 

Do all sloths have tails?

Yes. Every sloth has a tail, but they aren’t easy to find. A sloth’s tail looks more like a snout. The three-toed sloth for instance has a 3cm to 5cm-long tail which is only 5cm long. Although it doesn’t really look like a tail, it technically is. 

Now you’re probably wondering how useful these tiny tails are. We’ll talk about that in a moment. But before we go on, let’s check out the basics. 

Why do animals need a tail? 

Before we begin discussing the tail of sloths, it’s imperative to know first why animals actually need a tail. To keep it simple, let’s stay on track by discussing only animals that live on trees (arboreal animals). 

Animals that live in the trees have prehensile tails, which means these tails have evolved over the years and are now able to hold and grasp objects.

 If you have come across a monkey leaping from tree branch to tree branch, you have probably noticed how they use their tail to gain better grip. besides being a climbing aid, these prehensile tails also help them forage for fruits.

Now that we have basic knowledge about the uses of a tail, let’s take a sneak peek into how a sloth uses its tail. 

Why do sloths need tails?

Sloths live on trees and they hardly climb down. As a matter of fact, they spend up to 90% of their lifetime on trees. From our previous discussion, it may be quite evident that the sloth’s tails aren’t prehensile. 

The tails do not measure up to 5cm long and cannot be used in climbing or foraging. So, how then is it useful to them?

Sloths use their tiny tails to dig up a shallow hole very close to the tree they live in. This hole is strictly for poop! Yes, sounds quite gross, right? Even more gross is the fact that these sloths poop just once in an entire week. 

As the slowest mammals on earth, sloths have a really low digestive system and it takes their digestive system quite a while to digest food that they eat. 

Sloths have a largely inefficient digestive system. This leaves them eating a lot to meet their body’s energy needs. An interesting fact about sloths is, almost 1/3rd of the bodyweight of a sloth is its poop in its belly. A tremendous amount if you ask me!

Sloths are virtually defenceless against attack from predators which is why they spend an entire life camouflaged on trees. And the last thing they want is, the smell of their poop signalling the predators.

Sloths use trees as a camouflaged against predators because virtually defenceless against attack from the predators. They also do this to avoid the smell of their poop signalling predators, so they use their stubby tails as diggers to bore a shallow hole to poop and cover this hole with leaves and sand!

Did the ancestors of sloths have a tail? 

Sloths have always been a fascinating topic for biologists and they have learned a lot about them from their ancestors’ fossils. 

These paleontologists discovered that the ancestors of present-day sloths were completely different from the ones we see these days. Worthy of note is the fact that the majority of these ancestors were ground sloths, not tree sloths. 

The mummified remains of sloths as well as the fossils obtained from Chile and Argentina suggest that these ancestors possessed stronger limbs & vertebrae, stronger hind limbs, and a strong pelvic bone. 

These characteristics go to show that a reasonable number of the early sloths could actually walk bipedally. Most of them had hands and claws that look suitable enough to handle the foliage. 

Also worthy of note is the fact that the fossils suggest that sloths used to have a robust tail. As a matter of fact, their tails were much longer than those of the ones we see today. 

This could mean that they probably used their tail to sit in a tripodal posture by resting all of their body weight on their tail and then stand upright on their feet in order to reach out to trees using their hands. 

Another group of researchers suggests that ground sloths were great swimmers just like the tree sloths and their long tails helped them swim. 

The evolution of ground sloths – (from  long tail to tree sloths with a small tail)

In the research community, some paleontologists are of the opinion that the sloth’s evolution is complicit in the smaller tail of a tree sloth.

The change is largely attributed to the evolution of ground sloths to tree sloths. As stated above, the ground sloths were the early ancestors of modern-day tree sloths that live on land and possess robust tails and strong hind limbs.

Ground sloth fossils reveal that most of these animals were plantigrade (animals that place the entire foot surface on the ground). They are thought o have evolved over the years from plantigrade animals to animals having pedolateral foot.

As the evolution process took place, ground sloths became tree sloths, developing sharp claws which aid in climbing trees. And the role of the tail faded due to the drastic reduction in size, evident today.