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A Guide To Spotting Two and Three-Toed Sloths In Costa Rica

Humpback whale mid-breach in sea

Everyone wants to see a sloth when they visit Costa Rica! By hanging from branches, these animals use gravity to move through the trees…very slowly. While you might be familiar with their playful “smile” and long arms, how much do you know about sloths? This guide will help you on your next trip to Costa Rica.

Types of Sloths

If you want to know how to say “sloth” in Spanish, the word is “perezoso.” It literally translates into “lazy.”

There are two types of sloth native to Costa Rica: Two-toed (more accurately known and two-fingered) and three-toed (or three-fingered) sloths. The easiest way to tell which sloth you’re looking at is to take a look at their front claws. Are there two or three on each front limb?

The two-fingered sloth will have two front claws, and three hind claws. The three-fingered sloth has three claws on each limb.

What do both two-fingered and three-toed sloths have in common?

Both species travel by using their long limbs to hang upside-down from trees and crawl slowly along branches. And they have incredible grip strength…they can support their body weight with just one foot!

Why do they do this? One theory is that hanging requires less energy than balancing. And sloths need to preserve their energy! The foods they eat…mostly leaves…are low in calories and take a long time to digest. This is why sloths are famously slow.

Both two-fingered and three-fingered sloths like resting in hibiscus, cinnamon, and ficus trees. The leaves of the cecropia tree is their favorite snack! The cecropia tree has a long, thin trunk with fan-like leaves on top. This is a good place to start looking for our slow friends.

It’s hard to spot a sloth, so knowing the trees they like to inhabit can help you see one in the wild.

Sloths are masters at blending into their surroundings. They grow algae on their fur, which helps them blend into trees and avoid natural predators, like the jaguar. (So they may actually look a bit green, which surprises some visitors!)

Sloths are “arboreal” animals. This word sounds like the Spanish word “arbol” which means “tree.” Trees are very important to every aspect of a sloth’s life—from eating to sleeping to breeding.

This is why it’s important to protect the sloths’ natural habitat. Without trees, sloths might be tempted to climb or walk across power lines. Deforestation threatens the habitat of both two and three-toed sloths.

Doing what sloths do best!

What is the difference between the two-toed and three-toed sloths?

See a sloth, but not the front claws? These tips can help you figure out which sloth you’re looking at:

  • Two-fingered sloths like mango, water apple, beach almond, and rose apple trees. Three-toed sloths enjoy being in mozote, African tulip, and star apple trees.
  • Two-fingered sloths have a more varied diet than three-toed sloths, and enjoy eating fruit and flowers as well as leaves.
  • Two-fingered sloths have light brown fur on their faces. Three-toed sloths have a black mask and a “smiling” mouth. Male three-toed sloths may have a patch of orange and brown fur on their backs.
  • Three-toed sloths also have more flexible necks, and can turn their heads almost all the way around.

Are you now a sloth-spotting expert?

Based on the above knowledge, can you tell what kind of sloth is in each situation?

  1. A sloth covered in algae is in a hibiscus tree. The face and claws are not visible.
  2. A sloth with light brown fur is sleeping in a water apple tree. The claws are not visible.
  3. A sloth that looks like it is wearing a mask with a big smile is eating leaves of a cecropia tree, and has three claws on the front limbs. It turns its head almost all the way around to look at you.


  1. Not enough information to tell (but still a cute photo)
  2. Most likely a two-fingered sloth (who is a bit shy)
  3. Certainly a three-toed sloth (showing off for the camera!)

Easy steps for spotting sloths in Costa Rica:

  1. Identify the kinds of trees sloths like to live in, and look carefully in the branches of those trees. You can do this by knowing in advance what these trees look like, or saving photos of these trees onto your phone.
  2. When you spot a sloth, look at the fur on its face and body, its claws, and the tree it’s in to determine if you’re looking at a two-fingered or three-toed sloth.
  3. Leave the animal alone! Do not try to feed or pet a sloth. While they are adorable, they will defend themselves if they feel threatened.

If you cannot make it to Costa Rica, you might have a friendly sloth relative in your own backyard: the armadillo

Learn how Rescate Wildlife Rescue Center helps injured sloths!

* written by volunteer Lisa Martens

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