Incredibly rare footage of a fight between a sloth and an ocelot has been captured deep in the Amazon rainforest.
Sloths are better known for their super-slow lifestyles than their fighting prowess — the common name "sloth" is derived from the Old English for "laziness." They clamber through the trees of Central and South American rainforests slowly and deliberately, taking their time as they pluck the leaves, fruits and insects they feed on. Sloths are so slow that algae grows in their fur and moths lay their eggs on them.
But the recent footage, captured by primate researchers in the Yasuní Biosphere Reserve in eastern Ecuador, indicates that sloths are not total doormats. The team, studying monkeys, had set up camera traps around a mineral lick — an area of exposed substrate that is frequented by rainforest animals in need of nutrients not otherwise available in their diets.
Their motion-triggered cameras captured video of a Linnaeus’s two-toed sloth (Choloepus didactylus) defending itself against an ocelot (Leopardus pardalis) attack. The researchers described their findings in the September edition of the journal Food Webs.
Mineral licks are dangerous spaces. They provide essential nutrients — but at a cost. Arboreal animals such as sloths, monkeys and porcupines have to risk being on the ground to get to the minerals.
There, predators may lie in wait. Previous research has shown that jaguars and pumas stake out mineral licks in the hopes of easy access to prey animals. In this case, an ocelot, a small cat native to South America, attempted to prey on a sloth trying to get its vitamins.
This mineral lick is unusually visible, enabling the researchers to capture uniquely clear footage. "It's a more open area," Di Fiore noted. The other licks in the region are secluded, in caves or along river banks.
Ocelots have been recorded preying on sloths before — though observations of both mammals are scarce due to their secretive lifestyles. Sloths and ocelots are largely nocturnal, though this recent footage occurred during daylight hours. In the video, the ocelot attempts to bite the back of the sloth’s neck — a strategy typical of the species. A previous study of sloth predation by an ocelot demonstrated that the cats tend to target the back of the skull.
But in this case the sloth pries itself from the jaws of its predator, rolls onto its back and swipes at it with its formidable set of claws. It then clambers onto a log spanning the pool filling the mineral lick. The ocelot follows, attempting to dislodge its dangling prey. Then, the footage ends, due to the inability of the stationary cameras to follow the exchange.
The brief footage provides a window into the little-known habits of these elusive species. "We have not picked up any other evidence of predation, or attempted predation in the tens of thousands of pictures and videos that we've gotten," Di Fiore said.
Though ocelots have been known to eat sloths, they are not a staple. Rare observations like this one help to shed more light on the behaviors of the rarely seen species.
"It's hard to get a grip on their natural history," Di Fiore said. But camera traps are "one one way to do that: taking advantage of the fact that you're not there, scaring them away. These things that we don't know about are going on right under our noses."
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Richard Pallardy is a freelance science writer based in Chicago. He has written for such publications as National Geographic, Science Magazine, New Scientist, and Discover Magazine.