About A Sloth: Life in the Slow Lane

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It seems like sloths are everywhere recently, popping up all over the Internet in memes and cute videos. It’s not hard to see why they’re so popular. We could learn a lot about laziness from these fascinating little creatures.

WORDS Alycia Crofton

You’re walking through a lush green forest. Mist blurs the distant path and fills your lungs with fresh, sweet air. The light is dimming, as storm clouds converge, and threatening to unleash a fountain of rain as they do every afternoon in this part of the world. Leaves crunch under your feet – surely all the animals have heard you coming by now and have retreated into the dense bush. It’s been hours but you’ve come all this way and the eagerness to see something wild overrides any sweat or exhaustion you are suffering from the trek. There’s nothing moving, and yet you know something is here. You’re not sure whether it’s the built-up anticipation or a newly found sixth sense which tells that you are not alone. Stopping to scan the trees, you notice a large grey growth on a tree. Could it really be more than your imagination or just a dense mat of leaves?

Yes. It’s a sloth. Its fur is tinged green and its dream-like movement is only visible as you creep closer and stay a while to watch it slowly change position.

Snapping out of the documentary, you’re on the couch eating a dinner with the likes of chocolate and toast. Hey, you’ve been working hard this week right? Work and study take up a lot of mind space and energy. You are tempted with a well-deserved break but you hesitate… Work-life balance, as it’s well document ed, is necessary for keeping ourselves calm, focused and productive. Yet we drift between the two extremes, throwing ourselves into a cram session and then losing all motivation until the next deadline. A balanced lifestyle that caters to our basic needs seems to have been forgotten. Sleeping, eating well and true relaxation are rarely prioritised. So, why not take a short break now and learn a few lessons from the humble sloth?

Sloths have a strange kind of appeal. They are a unique mix of adorable and alien, which perhaps is the secret to their intriguing YouTube videos. They are well known for their perceived laziness as they sleep almost as much as cats and move as slowly as snails. Sloths are a symbol of perpetual calm, and they live the carefree lifestyle we often struggle to achieve – and yet feel guilty, like it’s a sin. A lack of purpose is both appealing and hard to understand for many, but when looking at the life of a sloth it becomes cliche.

For those not familiar with these creatures, sloths are chubby, hairy mammals about the size of a small dog, with large and almost blind eyes, huge claws and a neck that can turn 270 degrees. They are related to armadillos and anteaters in the Order Xenarthra. There are two groups of sloths, the two-toed and the three-toed. Two-toed sloths are nocturnal and eat a greater variety of food – these are kind you can see in a zoo. Three-toed sloths are smaller, active during the day and have such a specific diet that they are just not suitable for captivity.

Sloths are also known as the koalas of Central and South Americas. Their diet is mostly made up of leaves, though they can barely be bothered to chew them and digestion can take several weeks. Although their stomachs might be reasonably full, the leaves themselves contain very few nutrients. To make up for this dietary intake, the sloth’s metabolic rate is incredibly low and their claws take the brunt of their body weight when hanging from a branch, thus reducing any potential strain on their muscles. Their life and body are designed around using as little energy as possible – except for their toilet habits…

Despite the energy expenditure and risk of predators, sloths are known to climb down from the trees about once a week to do their business on the ground. The reason for this has not yet been found but there are several theories hanging about in scientific literature:
1. Avoidance of predators during the dry season. The sound of splattering poop from a tree branch may alert predators such as birds to the location of a sloth. Sloths rarely are seen on the ground during rain, perhaps due to the extra sound camouflage this brings.
2. The sloths inherently know that fertilising a tree at the roots will encourage the growth of leaves at the top.
3. A symbiotic relationship with a species of moth, where the sloth’s end of the bargain is to facilitate the birth and growth of larvae.
This particular species of moth is thought to be connected to the pooping process due to observations of female moths jumping off of the sloth once it reaches the ground. The moths then lay their eggs in the sloth dung, giving the next generation a fertile (and smelly) beginning. Although not fully understood, it is thought that these moths could be important to the sloths’ health, perhaps by eating parasites that would otherwise invade the sloths fur and cause disease.

Sampling of sloth fur has found that not only the moths are making themselves at home, sloths have been found to host their very own ecosystem on their backs. Cyanobacteria (algae) live amongst the fur and help to camouflage the sloth. There are beetles and other insects which act as cleaners, plus many other microscopic species that give the sloth extra nutrients during grooming. Yes, the sloth does, at first sight, appear to be just hanging around, but there is a lot more going on than you might initially think.

Laziness and a lack of motivation or purpose are generally deemed undesirable for us humans. For these guys, it’s a way of life that has evolved over a long time to suit their environment. It is not only an integral part of their species’ survival but is also important to all the insects, algae and plants that they interact with. Together they make up the forest ecosystem.

We get used to filling up our minds and bodies with so much information and substances. Perhaps we should not feel the guilt that comes with relaxing every once in a while, if only to give our bodies time to digest. Put away your phone and get lost in a book (or Grapeshot); plan and cook yourself a healthy meal or sit by the lake and listen to the birds. Everyday you can use the time on the train or in between classes to just stop, take in your surroundings and refocus on your place in the world.