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The Sloth: A Slow-Moving Oddity - Yellow Magpie

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Published on May 25th, 2011 | by Yellow Magpie


The Sloth: A Slow-Moving Oddity


It is one of the strangest mammals found in nature. An exotic lumbering creature that spends a lot of its time sleeping and the rest of it either resting or seemingly moving in slow-motion. The sloth is an animal of intrigue. Its alien appearance gets our initial attention but it is its inability to move quickly that sustains our gaze.

Sleeping Sloths

Sloths are generally thought to be among the most somnolent animals that exist today and they spend the vast majority of their lives sleeping. They can appear to be asleep for up to 18 hours of the day.

Recently the Max Planck Institute in Germany has found that sloths spend as little as ten hours or less actually sleeping. They obtained this information from analysing the animals sleeping patterns. Therefore, it appears that the animal is sometimes not actually asleep when it has its eyes firmly shut.

Two-Toed Sloth

A Low Energy Lifestyle

The reason why they spend so much time in a low-energy state is because of their diet. Sloths are leaf-eaters. Leaves are an abundant form of food in the rainforests and it is natural that animals would use them as a food source. Nonetheless, leaves have a serious drawback especially if they feed on them exclusively. They are a low energy food.

To compensate for this sloths have adopted a very lethargic lifestyle. They spend most of their time barely moving. To highlight just how slow-paced their lives are, sloths only defecate either every week or every fortnight.

But Why So Slow?

The most piquing aspect of sloths is their speed, or more precisely their lack of it. On the ground sloths move at an incredibly slow pace of two metres per minute. Even when they are in extreme danger they only manage six metres per minute and this exertion leaves them exhausted.

The ultimate reason why sloths are slow-paced is because of their diet. The low energy food has resulted in the necessity of having muscles that utilise the least amount of energy. As a result, their muscles are roughly between one-fifth and one-quarter the size of an animal of similar dimensions.

How Are Sloths Still Around?

The question that pervades everyone’s lips is just how have sloths survived extinction. Surely such a slow-moving animal would be easy fodder for predators? It is their slow-moving nature that has allowed sloths to become a successful species. High atop the trees, they are difficult to spot and the fact that they barely move means they receive little or no attention from predators. It is only when they come down to the ground defecating that they are highly vulnerable.

Three-Toed Sloth Sleeping Photo By Stefan Laube


Claws are very important to sloths. Their long nails allow the sloth to hold on to trees without any energy being exerted.  In fact, sloths that have died often remain motionless still clinging to branches.

Sloths also use their claws as a last defence against predators. Though given their slow moving nature it seems that this would only deter predators if they became intimidated.

Strange Visitations

One of the oddest aspect of sloth’s behaviour is the habit of climbing down to the ground to defecate. This odd practice is stringently adhered to by all sloths and the reason why they do so is still unknown. Some scientists have speculated that going to the ground allows them to smell other sloths in the area which is especially useful for mating.

Others have theorised that they are worried about the noise of defecating attracting unwanted attention from predators if they simply remained in the trees. This seems to have veracity as some sloths have been observed defecating from the safety of trees during thunderstorms as the sound would be masked by the thunder.

Vital Statistics

  • Sloths can be over 60 cm (two feet) in length.
  • They weigh between three to four kilograms depending upon the species. Two-thirds of their body weight is accounted for by their stomach and digestive organs.
  • Sloths can live up to twenty years in the wild and up to 40 years in captivity.
  • They are found in in the rainforests of Central and Southern America.

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