Fossil Of 27,000-Year-Old Giant Sloth Contributes To Climate Change Debate

A 13-foot-tall sloth is believed to have died in a sinkhole after finding a water source.

A sloth hangs upside down on a branch
rus33333 / Pixabay

A 13-foot-tall sloth is believed to have died in a sinkhole after finding a water source.

A fossil of a ginormous sloth is giving scientists an idea of the potential effects of climate change, CNN is reporting. Researchers were able to discover the fossil of a huge ground sloth that lived in Belize an entire 27,000 years ago. While Belize has a thriving environment now, the sloth in question wasn’t able to experience the lush jungles we see nowadays. Due to The Last Glacial Maximum, Belize saw a drought — most of the planet’s water was trapped in glaciers and polar ice caps. This combined with the fact that sea levels and water tables were lower made water scarce.

Scientists found a fossil of a sloth that is extinct now and was believed to be a whopping 13 feet tall. Unfortunately, it appears that the dehydrated sloth found a water source deep within the ground in a sinkhole, but was unable to find its way back out. The giant sloth fossil was actually found by chance, as the divers who made the discovery were originally looking for ancient Mayan artifacts. While exploring a natural pool in 2014 in Cara Blanca, divers came across a humerus and femur as well as part of a large tooth.

Studying the tooth could have been a waste of time and bring no new information, as the sloth doesn’t have enamel on its teeth like humans and other large mammals of the time do. Researchers usually can inspect enamel to learn about the things the creature consumed. While this extinct breed of sloth’s teeth have been discovered before, they are usually too fossilized and have had the enamel in their teeth gradually replaced with mineral over time. The sloth found in Cara Blanca, however, had just enough tissue left on the tooth that was worth checking out. The findings were published in the journal Science Advances on February 26, giving the public a picture of the ancient sloth’s climate and diet.

Coming across this information wasn’t easy, however. The scientists only discovered that the tooth contained tissue that could be studied after cathodoluminescence microscopy, which can detect the amount of fossilization in a body part. The researchers were able to find a type of tooth tissue called orthodentin after drilling the tooth. According to the results, the sloth experienced a drought in the last seven months of its life. It lived in a savanna rather than a forest, and consumed a variety of plants.

“We were able to see that this huge, social creature was able to adapt rather readily to the dry climate, shifting its subsistence to relying upon what was more available or palatable,” said Jean Larmon, lead study author and graduate student at the University of Illinois.

Unfortunately, the diversity and adaptability of the sloth’s diet points toward climate change being the ultimate cause of its demise. The results contribute to the idea “that many factors, in addition to a changing climate, contributed to the extinction of megafauna in the Americas,” according to Lisa Lucero, study author and University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign anthropology professor.