Why Are Sloths So Slow (And Other Interesting Facts)

If you were asked to name some of the slowest animals in the kingdom, you would probably name animals like snails, tortoise, and sloths. Sloths are among the slowest animals in the world, and that’s what makes them so adorable. Due to their evolution process, everything they do is slow-paced. Even blinking takes time. But, why are sloths so slow? Let’s find out.

Two-toed sloths and three-toed sloths are the modern-day versions of ancient sloths who used to be much bigger. They are commonly found in South and Central America. Sloths live in tree branches and canopies. They only come down from their trees when they require to defecate. They use the closely connected tree branches to move from one place to another. You can imagine how long it takes them to complete such physical actions!

The prehistoric version of sloths used to move on the ground as they weighed several tonnes. A change in food habits played a significant role in turning them slow, according to a researcher from the German Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research named Camila Mazzoni. Sloths’ diet consists mostly of leaves. Because leaves aren’t that nutritious, sloths had to adjust their movements following the diet. But there are other factors involved as well.

Why Are Sloths So Slow? 

Why Are Sloths So Slow

Moving to a leaf-based diet in a way forced these creatures to have a low metabolic rate. If sloths were to move fast, then relying only on leaves wouldn’t have been enough. That’s why, to sustain an easier way of living, sloths restricted their mobility. Call it laziness or a form of adaptation.

Sloths take forever to move from one tree to another. Even while moving vertically, sloths maintain a sluggish pace. They travel 37.5 meters on average. Just to help you understand how unhurried sloths are, that’s less than half the length of a soccer field.

There are six known sloth species, and all of them live in tropical forests. Tropical regions have hot and humid weather. This type of weather acts as an advantage of endothermic mechanisms. As the weather is already warm, animals don’t require extra energy to keep their body warm. This environmental factor limits body movement and makes mammals lazy.

Mammals have an advantageous point over other animals of the animal kingdom. The evolutional trait allows them to move around even in colder climates, unlike lizards who get bogged down in extreme conditions. But to keep the body warm, mammals need to move around and eat a lot compared to other species.  

Zoologist Becky Cliffe is continuing her research in Costa Rica’s Sloth Conservation Foundation. Having actively seen sloths all day long, she has talked about the slowness of the animals. According to her, to truly understand just how slow a sloth is, you need to see them in person.

We all know they are slow, but when you get to see even the simplest of body movements like tilting or turning their head, blinking their eye is done so sluggishly only then, you learn to appreciate these mammals. It’s like watching a video play in slo-mo.

Other Interesting Facts about Sloths 

There’s so much we don’t know about sloths. Thanks to various independent and institutional researchers, we are starting to know about these friendly animals. This has enabled us to learn about their vulnerability as well. 

Committed Relationship with Trees 

Sloths are so dependent on trees; it’s as if they’re in a committed relationship with trees. Their leaf-based diet and tree dependent life mean that they don’t need to get down from trees other than when they need to defecate.

This is another cofactor behind their laziness. Being high up on a branch keeps them safe from ground predators. Sloths never have to encounter attacks from cheetah or leopards. That’s why they don’t have that instinct to travel fast.

Sloths go to the very top of canopies to absorb the sunlight and get some Vitamin D. If it gets too hot and humid, they get down to the lower branches and take naps. 

They are so closely tied with trees that some sloths have green tints on their body. Do you know what that is? If you guessed moss, then you’re correct. Sloths are so stagnant that they have become home to algae and moss without even realizing it. This also acts as camouflage helping sloths to blend in with the green canopy background easily.

As Big As an Elephant  

Sloths of the prehistoric age are reported to be of the size of a full-grown Asian elephant. They are known as Megatherium, which means large beasts. These sloths used to move on all fours on the ground, and when they stood up, they could reach the height of 12 feet. The Megatherium had a length of 20 feet on average and weighed several tons.

By carbon dating the fossils, scientists have identified that the Megatherium americanum walked the earth about 5 million to 11 thousand years ago. Most of the fossils were found in the South American region, which led the researchers to believe that this was their territory. But the smaller ancient version of the Megatherium, which is called Eremotherium, reached New Jersey somehow, and the scaling shows that they weighed around six thousand pounds. 

These prehistoric sloths were built for withstanding animal attacks. Anatomy shows that they had bone discs, which doubled as an armor plate. This allowed them to fight off predators and mark their territory. But sadly, they went extinct roughly ten thousand years earlier.

The Upside Down World

Sloths tend to hang upside down throughout almost the entire day. Studies show that they spend nearly ninety percent of their life hanging upside down from branches. Sloths’ adaptation process enables them to stay in this form without impacting their physical condition. They can breathe normally and even eat while in the upside-down posture.

Could humans do the same?

No, we couldn’t and don’t even think about it. The main reason why sloths can hang upside down is that their organs are attached to their ribcage. Their anatomy is quite fascinating, to say the least. When they are hanging upside down, their organs don’t pressurize the lungs, unlike the human body.

Motherly Nature of Sloths 

Sloths carry their babies for about six months before giving birth. They give birth to only one sloth baby a year. Sloth babies can be compared to kangaroos to some extent. Baby sloths stay with the mom for roughly six months. During that period, the baby holds onto the mother’s stomach, and this acts as an intimate bonding for the newborn and its mother. 

This is a learning period for the baby sloths. By grasping onto the mother sloth, babies learn to survive in the real world. Developing their front portion and building strong muscles is a fundamental aspect of a sloth’s adaptation process. 

After the baby sloth becomes six months old, it starts to discover its path. Even then, baby sloths don’t go too far from the parent. It uses the same range as its mother to call and communicate.

If there were a list of the cutest animals on the earth, baby sloths would easily make it into that list.

Have you ever seen a baby sloth sleeping in real life? If you have, count yourself among the lucky ones because they are truly precious. 

The Sleep Cycle of Sloths 

What do you associate with being lazy and slow? Any human who is deemed as lazy is also known to sleep the longest. This association of sleep with laziness comes mainly from the animal kingdom. 

Sloths sleep a lot. They spend over half of the day snoozing. To be exact, on average, sloths sleep for 15 hours. They use the remaining nine hours to complete the other tasks which are eating and hanging upside down in the sun. Scientists are yet to pinpoint the exact reason behind sloths turning into such sluggish and lazy mammals. Because as you have seen earlier, they used to be active and, at times, very dominant.

Less movement and heavy sleeping allow them to eat minimum food each day. As they don’t require much energy, they can spend their entire life on a leaf-based diet. They maintain a low body temperature of around 90 degrees Fahrenheit. Even if the outside temperature fluctuates, the sloth’s body temperature stays in and around that mark. To maintain this temperature, sloths stay in the shade during sunny days and goes to the very top canopy during colder days in search of sunlight.

Swimming Abilities of Sloths 

This specialty of sloths doesn’t get publicized as much. Sloths are incredible swimmers. Although they don’t require swimming that much, whenever they do need to swim, they are good at it.

They use their long arms to move about in the water. They know how to float without giving much effort into it. That’s something common about sloths. They find ways to do activities effortlessly. Would you call that lazy or smart? 

Sloths swim almost three times faster compared to their movement on the ground. They can dive and stay underwater for 40 minutes without having to come up for air. Sloths can hold their breath for that long because they can slow their metabolic rate down by making their heartbeat two times slower than the normal rate.

Complete View 

Sloths can turn their head almost 270⁰ on its axis. This gives them a nearly 360-degree view of the surrounding environment. Without basically any effort, they can look around, only if they need to.

This is a defensive mechanism that any specie would love to have. Sloths are quite special in that regard. But the funny part is, sloths don’t get hunted by predators. So, they don’t need to use this moving technique as much. 

Picturesque Smile 

No matter how many photos you go through on the internet, you wouldn’t find an angry sloth. They either have a poker face, or they seem to have the biggest smile. 

Their faces are structured in such a way that you can’t differentiate between the different emotions the sloths feel by their facial expression. Whether they are excited, sad, or worried, they always give off happy vibes.

Tourists often mistake their emotions and invade their personal space just to take a selfie.

Do Sloths Ever Come Down From Trees?

Do Sloths Ever Come Down From Trees

Sloths spend almost the entirety of their life on the canopy. Their eating habit is so unique that they don’t need to come down. The low metabolic rate and slow digestion mean they don’t need to relieve themselves that often.

To answer your question, yes, they do come down from the trees but not as often as you would think. They defecate once a week, sometimes twice. They come down from the trees to get a bit of privacy from the fellow sloths. 

They like to stay hidden. The trees give them protection from aggressive animals and birds. Staying motionless is a safer option, obviously for such a lazy mammal. 

Other than defecating, sloths come down when they’re searching for extra food or searching for a partner to mate with. 

Don’t Endanger the Sloths 

The main enemies of sloths are us, humans. Sloths have managed to keep themselves safe from the dangers of the wilderness. But we are often unkind to these precious mammals.

Deforestation and overflow of tourists are causing sloths to find new homes and become victims of predators. The Amazon rainforest is home to a huge number of sloths. Burning down forests and the recent fire in Amazon has caused major casualties. 

Tourist spots that have sloth habitats in them need to be protected. Too many people in a small area can cause sound and air pollution. Degrading the environment has never really done anyone any favors. Also, when you’re close to a sloth, taking pictures is okay, but don’t invade their privacy by hugging and taking them on your laps.

Final Thoughts

Although sloths are termed as lazy animals, these fun facts show that there is more to them than we know about. They have adopted this lazy way of living, which shows signs of cleverness because they can survive without hardly having to do anything.

So, don’t focus on why sloths are so slow, rather take time to think about how unique and special sloths are.

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