Panama "Alien" Really a Dead, Bloated Sloth

Sabrina Valle in Rio de Janeiro
for National Geographic News
November 9, 2009

Pale and snub-nosed with long arms and curving claws, an "alien" discovered in September had five teenagers thinking they'd had a close encounter in a Panama creek.

(Watch CNN coverage of the Panama "ET" from September, via YouTube.)

"I was in the river and I felt something grabbing my legs," one of the boys told the local television program Telemetro Reporta a few days after the sighting in the Cerro Azul region of Panama City.

"We took it out of the water and started throwing rocks and sticks at it. We had never seen anything like that."

After beating the creature until they thought it was dead, the teenagers threw it back into the water, returning later to snap photos of the body sprawled on a rock. Their pictures of the dead "alien" posted online quickly earned the creature the nickname "Panama ET."

(Related: "Alien-like Squid With 'Elbows' Filmed at Drilling Site.")

But an autopsy has now revealed that the purported alien was actually a species of sloth that had died and started to decay before the boys' discovery.

"Most people know how a dead animal looks like in a dry environment," said André Sena Maia, a veterinarian at Niterói Zoo in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

"The body must have got stuck under the water, and the movement of the currents gave [the boys] the false impression that it was alive."

Alien Looks Due to Watery Grave

Panamanian officials recovered the "alien" four days after the teenagers had thrown it back into the creek.

A biopsy done at the National Environmental Authority of Panama (ANAM) concluded that the creature was a male Bradypus variegates, also known as a three-toed sloth, a common species in Central and South America.

"The sloth had severe signs of trauma on its body, as shown in the necropsy," said Melquiades Ramos, a veterinarian at the ANAM Department of Protected Areas and Wild Lives.

"From the state it is shown in the pictures, we can estimate it had been in the water for about two days before being found."

The body's unearthly appearance is the normal state for a putrefying animal immersed in water, said Maia, of the Niterói Zoo.

That's because water accelerates the loss of fur and gives the dead animal smooth and almost glowing skin, he said.

In addition, bacteria decomposing the body created gases that made the organs swell, adding to the creature's extraordinary appearance.

After identifying the body, ANAM staff buried the sloth.




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