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Why are Sloths So Slow?

By Josie F. Turner, Journalist specialized in Animal Welfare. Updated: September 3, 2017
Why are Sloths So Slow?

Sloths, the lazy leaf munching tree dwellers, live in the tropical forests of Central and South America. There are currently two genera; two-toed sloths and three-toed sloths. However, it is known that there were previously more than 50 generas that are now extinct.

While they have visual similarities with primates, there isn't any genetic bond between these animal families. In actuality, sloths are related to bears, anteaters and, their more distant cousins, the armadillos. They owe their name to the form and speed in which they move.

Keep reading to discover why are sloths so slow.

Why are Sloths So Slow?

One of the main reasons these animals are so slow is so that they can move about unnoticed. In doing so, they can cunningly avoid their natural predators such as eagles and jaguars that would otherwise find them if they were more active. They would be easy prey to detect and hunt if they were merely slow moving animals. However, their extreme slowness is a canny technique to make sloths almost impossible to detect as they blend in to the forest canopies and branches.

Monkeys are not as fortunate in this regard as eagles hunt and ravage their populations, something which sloths manage to avoid. This is because they feed on a resource that is plentiful everywhere in the forest: leaves. If they had to chase or move quickly for their food like monkeys, they would be just as vulnerable.

Besides, feeding on leaves is another reason why sloths are so slow. Leaves provide few nutrients and energy, so the sloth cannot spend too much energy with such a limited diet.

Why are Sloths So Slow? - Why are Sloths So Slow?

Sloth Metabolism and Feeding

As sloths base their diet on leaves, they have evolved to function on a very slow metabolism. Their stomach is divided into several compartments where symbiotic microorganisms ferment the food and draw the pulp out of leaves. These compartments separate and facilitate the absorption of food.

A sloth's food has lots of fibre, as well as the toxic components that plants can produce to fend off other animals. All this makes digestion difficult, so the digestive process can take up to a month in sloths.

The sloth comes down from the trees every 5 to 7 days to empty its bowels. Once alighted, they make a hole in the ground to deposit their droppings which they then cover up again. The ecological link is then complete as the sloth provides nutrients to the tree and helps to disperse seeds for germination.

Why are Sloths So Slow? - Sloth Metabolism and Feeding

Sloth Curiosities

There are several curiosities in the behaviour of the sloth and their slow metabolism as you'll see below:

  • Sloths do their activities during the hottest times of the day. If the day is overcast or cool, they stay in the same place to keep warm.
  • Sloths sleep hanging down from trees. They snooze for up to 18 hours a day. They can stay in the same tree for years as long as there's plenty of food there.
  • On the forest floor, they are very clumsy and find it difficult to move as they practically crawl from one place to another.
  • Paradoxically and contrary to what many might believe, sloths are very good swimmers. They can drop down from the trees into the water and, once there, they can swim fast and even cross rivers.
  • Useful as defence against predators, but frustrating to eager sloth spotters, is their ability to go totally unnoticed. You will see that it has green algae in its fur that helps them to blend in with the surrounding vegetation, something unique among vertebrate animals. They are animals that have evolved to take advantage of the environment in a very special way to better their chances of survival.
Why are Sloths So Slow? - Sloth Curiosities

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If you want to read similar articles to Why are Sloths So Slow?, we recommend you visit our Facts about the animal kingdom category.

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