Envy the sloth. To his Spanish-speaking neighbors of Central and South America he is known simply as El Perezoso ("the lazy"). To us, he is the literal dictionary definition of craven idleness, and indeed, his is a long but limited life experienced completely in slow-motion. But the sloth is unique among nature's creatures, in that he lives in near perfect symbiosis with his environment. No direspect to The Dude but the wild kingdom's most celebrated chillaxer may be the most perfect embodiment of zen living around.
On paper, the alternately creepy-cuddly Rainn-Wilson-looking mammal should in fact be the go-to adjective describing something or someone that is irredeemably repulsive — note that sloth fur is typically home to a menagerie of insects, including cockroaches. And yet here we are: The sloth is trendy, thanks to the cutesy series of videos by cutesy couple Kristin Bell and Dax Shephard. Or this more recent one that induces oohing and ahhing over sloth-baby bath time. Cuteness, as anyone who has met a newborn human baby, is in the eye of the beholder, but the sloth's other intriguing habits and characteristics are what make it worthy of emulation.
For sloths a typical day is spent sleeping 15 or more hours, all of that hanging limply from a branch.
The six existing species of sloth are divided among two families: the two and three toed varieties (amazingly, a prehistoric megalodon sloth was the size of an elephant!). Both varieties live an almost exclusively arboreal existence their entire lives. They are born in trees, hold tenaciously to their mother for nine months in that habitat, and then go on to hang tight, as it were for pretty much ever. The three-toed species live an especially cloistered and ascetic existence that we can all learn from. Read on for some interesting facts.
They literally hang tight
In order to maintain a life of unmolested torpor, you have to develop the right physique. For sloths a typical day is spent sleeping 15 or more hours, all of that hanging limply from a branch. That, no surprise, takes some legendary arm strength. So tenacious is the sloth's grip — aided, no doubt, by its inches-long hooked claws — that many linger on in trees long after they have died, hanging like haunted fruit.
So tenacious is the sloth's grip — aided, no doubt, by its inches-long hooked claws — that many linger on in trees long after they have died, hanging like haunted fruit.
They are in no rush for a reason
Spending your life in a tree also means having extremely limited dining options. This, it turns out, is the chicken-egg situation that defines the sloth's unique existence. Three-toed sloths base their sustenance entirely on eating tree leaves, which are nutritionally limited. This means sloths are mellow because they literally have no energy, so they move very little, and slowly when they must, and sleep a lot. Or, maybe it's really the reverse: If you take life slowly, don't get caught in a rush, and have a good nap, you can get by on pretty much anything.
Their digestion is a month-long affair
Tree leaves are not only low-energy food sources, they're darned hard to digest (go ahead, eat a fistful of maple leaves and report back). The three-toed sloth's metabolism, not unlike that of the koala, ekes all the energy out of its meagre meals by slowly digesting everything over the period of a month. In fact about two-thirds of a sloth's body weight is actually it's distended bellyful of partially digested leaves.
The three-toed sloth's unique metabolism ekes all the energy out of its meagre meals by slowly digesting everything over the period of a month.
Their fur is full of food
But, the three-toed sloth has another sneaky and surprising food source from which it fills in its nutritional gaps, one you might call homemade. Perhaps because the sloth lives among the treetops in humid jungles, its fur turns out to be the ideal breeding ground for algae. Algae, as any good hippy knows, is both energy rich, full of fatty compounds, and delicious (no really). Thus sloths get extra energy by eating the alga that naturally grows on their fur. Bon appetit!
About two-thirds of a sloth's body weight is actually it's distended bellyful of partially digested leaves.
Their poop contains multitudes
The age-old relationship wisdom holds true for sloth life too: Unlike monkeys, birds, and other arboreal animals, sloths excuse themselves when nature calls, and make a slow-as-molasses bolt for the bathroom at the base of their tree. This is not only good manners, but also a keystone of the three-toed sloth's remarkably personal ecosystem. Because sloths have such a slow metabolism, they only go once a week, which is one of the few occasions they leave their trees (more on that below).
Scientists from the University of Wisconsin-Madison have deduced that when sloths do their duty, insects such as moths that liver in their fur utilize the dung to hold the eggs of their offspring. When those hatch, they hop aboard the sloth on a future visit, bringing along with them bits of dung that serve to feed the algae growing in the sloth's fur. Thus a veritable perpetual motion machine of an ecosystem is born.
The sloth's secret power? They're awesome swimmers.
They're slow but not totally defenseless
Besides being too tired for travel, sloths are loathe to go abroad for another more pressing concern: predators. Though their arms are strong, their rear legs are all but useless on land, and sloths are forced to drag themselves with their claws, like the zombie hitchhiker from "Creepshow 2". This makes them vulnerable in particular to hungry jaguars. Although it should be said that they aren't immune to threats at home either: The fearsome Harpy Eagle can pluck sloths from the treetops (hit Youtube for a video — we can't bear to link to it). The sloth's secret power? They're awesome swimmers, and able to foil threats and head to new habitats by taking a plunge and going for a long, slow, relaxed swim — wherever the lazy river takes them.