In the modest time I have spent collecting fossils and exploring the science of paleontology, I have learned what seems to be a fairly consistent truth about the world we live in.
Nearly every modern animal alive today is distantly related to a way cooler, gigantic ancestral species.
Kangaroos, lions, sharks, wolves, piranha, deer, lemurs, crocodiles, eagles, bison, even beavers… All of them had ancient ‘relatives’ who were at least twice their size. These giants, called megafauna, were (and still are) categorized as animals who reach sizes as large or larger than 100 lbs. To further demonstrate my point, simply tack the word ‘giant’ and ‘extinct’ to the front of any animal you can think of and type it into Google. You will not be disappointed.
One of the most stunning examples is the sloth. The modern-day sloth is kind of cute and has some redeeming features like an apparent affinity for cats. Nonetheless, it is not riveting in particular and especially not fearsome. Their only method of defense is slowly and awkwardly swinging their clawed arms at perceived threats, and it can take them up to a month to digest food. Case closed.
Now step back at least 10,000 years to when the giant ground sloth, Megatherium, roamed the Americas. As the name ‘ground sloth’ suggests, you wouldn’t go looking for these critters in trees, and no they would not be scuttling around your feet. More likely, you would find them towering over your head and everything else too.
At heights as tall as twenty feet, Megatherium, the tallest species of the ground sloth was one of the largest land mammals to ever live. Its formidable claws could reach the size of dinner plates, and instead of climbing trees it ate them (and possibly animal remains as well). At nearly two tons, it weighed the size of an elephant and, despite its astonishing weight, it somehow managed to walk on it’s hind legs much like a bear.
Ground sloths, as you might have guessed, were not fast or agile. In addition, their low, narrow skulls were politely described by Dinopedia as having “very little brain matter.” So to sum it up for you, they were slow and dumb. However, that did not stop them from thriving for over 30 million years. In fact, their disappearance coincided with the appearance of modern humans about 10-30,000 years ago; leading to the assumption that the sloths were hunted to extinction by those jerks. This is why we can’t have nice things!