Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Sloths and Harpy Eagles

You know how one thing leads to another? When I was writing about the raccoon that had climbed head-first down our fence, I wrote that it moved like a sloth. That made me google sloth to check why the slowness of the raccoon and its head-first descent triggered a sloth impression.
Turns out, sloths are bizarrely interesting animals. Who knew? They move only when necessary and then very slowly. They have about half as much muscle tissue as other animals of similar weight. They can move at a marginally higher speed if they are in immediate danger from a predator, but they burn large amounts of energy doing so. Their specialized hands and feet have long, curved claws to allow them to hang upside-down from branches without effort. While they sometimes sit on top of branches, they usually eat, sleep and even give birth hanging from limbs. Sloths are herbivores, and generally eat leaves, especially those of the cecropia tree (which is what it is doing in the photograph). They have a very low metabolism and a low body temperature so their food and water needs are minimal. In terms of their sleep, sloths are one of the laziest animals ever, sleeping from 15 to 18 hours each day. They are particularly partial to nesting in the crowns of palm trees where they can camouflage as a coconut. They come to the ground, to urinate and defecate, only about once a week.

While reading about the sloth, I learned that their sharp claws are their only defense. Despite their apparent defenselessness, predators do not seem to pose problems. Sloths have good camouflage and do not attract much attention. Their main predators are jaguars and the harpy eagle.

Harpy eagle? I had never heard of such a thing. So, as one things leads to another, I googled harpy eagle, and was utterly blown away by the photographs of this raptor.
The name Harpy Eagle usually refers to the neotropical eagle, Harpia harpyja. It is the New World's largest and most powerful eagle, and is found in lowland tropical rainforest from southern Mexico to northern Argentina.

The Harpy Eagle is 100 cm (3.5 ft.) long with a 200 cm (6.5 ft.) wingspan and weighs 8 kg (18 lb.). Females are larger and heavier than males. It is dark grey overall, with an ash-grey head, and white belly. Both sexes possess an erectile crest of long feathers. The talons are up to 13 cm (5 in.) long.
This species is an actively hunting carnivore. Its main prey items are mammals that dwell in trees such as monkeys, coatis, sloths, etc; it may also attack other bird species. It can be aggressive towards humans who disturb its nesting sites or appear to be a threat to its young.

Have you ever seen such a creature? I did read that one of the characters ('Fawkes the phoenix') in the movie Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets was fashioned after this bird. So, I suppose those of you who saw the movie will recognize this bird, but I have never seen such a thing in my life. Thought you might find it as interesting as I did. I always love when one thing leads to another. All of this because a tail-less raccoon climbed slowly down our fence.

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