Temporal range: Late Pliocene to Late Pleistocene 2–0.01Ma
|Megatherium americanum skeleton, Natural History Museum, London|
|†Megatherium americanum Cuvier, G., 1796
Megatherium (from the Greek mega [μέγας], meaning "great", and therion [θηρίον], "beast") was a genus of elephant-sized ground sloths endemic to Central and South America that lived from the late Pliocene through the end of the Pleistocene. Its size was exceeded by only a few other land mammals, including mammoths and Paraceratherium.
Megatherium was one of the largest land mammals known, weighing up to 4 tonnes  and up to 6 m (20 ft) in length from head to tail. It is the largest known ground sloth, as big as modern elephants and would have only been exceeded in its time by a few species of mammoth. Although it was primarily a quadruped, its footprints show that it was capable of assuming a bipedal stance. This sloth, like a modern anteater, walked on the sides of its feet because its claws prevented it from putting them flat on the ground. Megatherium species were members of the abundant Pleistocene megafauna, large mammals that lived during the Pleistocene epoch.
Megatherium had a robust skeleton with a large pelvic girdle and a broad muscular tail. Its large size enabled it to feed at heights unreachable by other contemporary herbivores. Rising on its powerful hind legs and using its tail to form a tripod, Megatherium could support its massive body weight while using the curved claws on its long forelegs to pull down branches with the choicest leaves. Its jaw is believed to have housed a long tongue, which it would then use to pull leaves into its mouth, similar to the modern tree sloth.
Taxonomy and evolution 
The subgenus and species Megatherium (Pseudomegatherium) tarijense appears to be a junior synonym of M. americanum, and merely a small individual. The ground sloths, as with all other xenarthrans, evolved in isolation in South America, while it was an island continent during the Paleogene. During the Pliocene, the Central American Isthmus formed, causing the Great American Interchange, and a mass extinction of much of the indigenous South American megafauna. Ground sloths were largely unaffected and continued to thrive in spite of competition from the northern immigrants. In fact ground sloths were among the various South American animal groups to migrate northwards into North America, where they remained and flourished until the late Pleistocene.
The rhinoceros-sized Promegatherium of the Miocene is suggested to be the ancestor of Megatherium. The oldest (and smallest) species of Megatherium is M. altiplanicum of Pliocene Bolivia. It was very similar to Promegatherium, and was also about the size of a rhinoceros. Species of Megatherium became larger and larger, with the largest species, M. americanum of the late Pleistocene, reaching the size of an African elephant.
Megatherium inhabited woodland and grassland environments of the lightly wooded areas of South America  where it was an endemic species, as recently as 10,000 years ago. An example of these most recent finds is at Cueva del Milodon in Patagonian Chile. The closely related genus Eremotherium lived in more tropical environments further north, and in North America
The giant ground sloth lived mostly in groups, but it may have lived singly in caves. While mostly herbivorous, it has been suggested that it may have used its size and strength to take over the kills of sabre-toothed cat Smilodon and to scavenge or hunt large, armored glyptodonts. For millions of years, the sloth had no enemies to bother it, so it was probably a diurnal animal.
The giant ground sloth was a herbivore, feeding on leaves such as yuccas, agaves, and grasses. While it fed chiefly on terrestrial plants, it could also stand on its hind legs, using its tail as a balancing tripod, and reach for upper growth vegetation. It would pull itself upright to sit on its haunches or to stand and then tugged at plants with its feet, digging them up with the five sharp claws on each foot. The sloth used its simple teeth to grind down food before swallowing it, and its highly developed cheek muscles helped in this process. The sloth's stomach was able to digest coarse and fibrous food. It is likely that it spent a lot of time resting to aid digestion.
A recent morpho-functional analysis  indicates that M. americanum was adapted for strong vertical biting. The teeth are hypsodont and bilophodont, and the sagittal section of each loph is triangular with a sharp edge. This suggests that the teeth were used for cutting, rather than grinding, and that hard fibrous food was not the primary dietary component.
While it has been suggested that the giant sloth may have been partly carnivorous, this is a controversial claim.[dead link] Richard Fariña and Ernesto Blanco of the Universidad de la República in Montevideo have analysed a fossil skeleton of M. americanum and discovered that its olecranon - the part of the elbow to which the triceps muscle attaches - was very short. This adaptation is found in carnivores and optimises speed rather than strength. The researchers say this would have enabled M. americanum to use its claws like daggers. They suggest that to add nutrients to its diet, Megatherium may have taken over the kills of Smilodon. Based on the estimated strength and mechanical advantage of its biceps, it has been proposed that Megatherium could have overturned adult glyptodonts (large, armored xenarthrans, related to armadillos) as a means of scavenging or hunting these animals. However, other zoologists have described this proposal as "fanciful".
In the south, the giant ground sloth flourished until about 10,500 radiocarbon years BP. Most cite the appearance of an expanding population of human hunters as the cause of its extinction. There are a few late dates of around 8000 BP for Megatherium remains, but these are currently not universally viewed as credible.
See also 
- A. E. Zurita, A. A. Carlini, G. J. Scillato-Yané and E. P. Tonni. 2004. Mamíferos extintos del Cuaternario de la Provincia del Chaco (Argentina) y su relación con aquéllos del este de la región pampeana y de Chile. Revista geológica de Chile 31(1):65-87
- Bargo, M. S. (2001). "The ground sloth Megatherium americanum: Skull shape, bite forces, and diet". Acta Palaeontologica Polonica 46 (2): 173–192.
- "Megatherium Wildfacts". BBC. Retrieved 22 July 2012.
- De Iuliis, G.; Pujos, F. O.; Tito, G. (2009). "Systematic and taxonomic revision of the Pleistocene ground sloth Megatherium (Pseudomegatherium) tarijense (Xenarthra: Megatheriidae)". Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 29 (4): 1244. doi:10.1671/039.029.0426.
- Martin, P. S. (2005). Twilight of the Mammoths: Ice Age Extinctions and the Rewilding of America (Illustrated ed.). University of California Press. p. 250. ISBN 0520231414. Retrieved 22 July 2012.
- Saint-André, P. A.; De Iuliis, G. (2001). "The smallest and most ancient representative of the genus Megatherium Cuvier, 1796 (Xenarthra, Tardigrada, Megatheriidae), from the Pliocene of the Bolivian Altiplano.". Geodiversitas 23 (4): 625–645. Retrieved 22 July 2012.
- McKenna, M. C.; Bell S. K. (1997). Classification of Mammals Above the Species Level'. New York: Columbia University Press. p. 631. ISBN 023111012X.
- C. Michael Hogan (2008) Cueva del Milodon, Megalithic Portal
- Fariña, R. A.; R. E. Blanco (1996). "Megatherium, the stabber". Proceedings of the Royal Society of London 263 (1377): 1725–1729. doi:10.1098/rspb.1996.0252. PMID 9025315.
- Steadman, D. W.; Martin, P. S.; MacPhee, R. D. E.; Jull, A. J. T.; McDonald, H. G.; Woods, C. A.; Iturralde-Vinent, M.; Hodgins, G. W. L. (2005-08-16). "Asynchronous extinction of late Quaternary sloths on continents and islands". Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA (National Academy of Sciences) 102 (33): 11763–11768. doi:10.1073/pnas.0502777102. PMC 1187974. PMID 16085711. Retrieved 2009-01-24.
- Fiedal, Stuart (2009). "Sudden Deaths: The Chronology of Terminal Pleistocene Megafaunal Extinction". In Haynes, Gary. American Megafaunal Extinctions at the End of the Pleistocene. Springer. pp. 21–37. doi:10.1007/978-1-4020-8793-6_2. ISBN 978-1-4020-8792-9.
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