The slow-motion and high-canopy life of the sloth

If there is one fact about the sloth we all know, it’s that they are slow. Their lethargic movements paired with shaggy hair, that resembles a bowl-cut on the pygmy three-toed sloth, and lips that anthropomorphize into a derpy smile, make them one of the most revered animals on the planet.  There are six sloth species total, four are considered Bradypus (three–toed sloths) and two are Choloepus (two–toed sloths). They spend most of their lives hanging upside down in the tropical rainforests trees of Central and South America. Moving at a record pace of 0.25 KPH, sloths travel about 41 yards per day — that’s less than half the length of a football field. 

This sluggish pace is where the sloth derives its name, meaning slow, and is due to their extremely low metabolism. Sloths’ diet consists of leaves, twigs, and buds as they travel from tree to tree using canopy vines. Because the animals don’t have incisors, they trim down leaves by smacking their firm lips together — hence why humans see such a firm grin. A low metabolic rate also means sloths can survive on relatively little food. Slow motion, less distance covered, and not much rifling through the leaves, helps sloths avoid detection by predatory hawks and cats that hunt by sight.

A leisurely digestive system however, creates quite the extreme situation when it comes to pooping for the sloth. With the slowest rate of digestion of any mammal species, it takes days for sloths to process what other animals can digest in a matter of hours. This leads to an average of defecating once every week and scientists estimate that sloths lose about one-fifth of their body weight in the process. This pendulum swing of an infrequent bowel movement schedule with a massive release of waste, is by evolutionary design. Research shows an estimated 50 percent of sloths ultimately meet their end when they travel to the forest floor. That is why they only leave their home high in the trees to go to the bathroom and if they hear a mate calling far away.

Flickr, Creative Commons.

The sound of a sloth may surprise you, it is a high-pitched, ear-piercing cry that can cut through the noise of a teeming rainforest. Sloths are almost helpless on the ground, but are able to swim especially when a male hears a female in heat. Female sloths give birth to one baby a year after a gestation period of six months. Living mostly solitary lives, babies only stay with their mothers for additional six months and then adopt part of her range, continuing to communicate through calls.

Sloths, in addition to the metaphor of slowing down to stop and smell/eat the flowers, can teach us about sharing our environment. Their shaggy coat has grooved hair that serves as a habitat to symbiotic green algae which camouflages the animal in the trees and provides it nutrients. The algae then nourishes sloth moths, some species of which exist solely on sloths. As the sloth sleeps for about 15 hours a day, providing an ecosystem on it’s back, it’s own habitat is under destruction by human development. The pygmy sloth is critically endangered and the maned sloth is vulnerable because of this and poachers. Sloths can be found in the following bioregions – Amazon River Estuary (NT16), Western Amazonia Forests & Plains (NT18), Guinan Forests and Savanna (NT21), and Central American Mixed Forests (NT25).