Giant Sloth Toy
Megatherium americanum was first named scientifically in 1796 by the eminent French anatomist and ‘father of palaeontology’, Georges Cuvier. He recognized it was an extinct giant sloth, which was significant at the time because the concept of prehistory was only just being understood. He named it Megatherium, which means ‘large beast’.
The oldest examples of the genus Megatherium are 5.4 million years old, but the massive species Megatherium americanum evolved much later, in the Pleistocene, around 1.8 million years ago. Humans lived alongside the giant sloth and human hunters may have contributed to its extinction, just ten thousand years ago.
Megatherium has an excellent fossil record consisting of many skeletons, so its biology is known in great detail. Samples of giant sloth hair show that it was yellow-brown. The hair also hosted a mat of green algae on the living giant sloth, as happens in modern tree sloths. Vast quantities of giant sloth dung have even been found in caves. This dung contains pollen and plant fragments that show what Megatherium ate. Its diet changed with the climate: during dry seasons it fed on desert plants, whereas during cool wet seasons it ate leaves from trees.