Sleeping, Munching, Moving (slowly): The Sweet Life of a Sloth

A Three-toed sloth on the move.
A Three-toed sloth on the move.

We get a lot of questions about one of the CER’s cutest inhabitants: the Three-toed sloth. With its big eyes, laid-back nature, and ever-present look of contentment, the sloth is an easy animal to adore.

True to their name, sloths are the slowest mammals in the world, clocking in at the breakneck pace of 0.1 to 0.2 miles per hour on land. Thankfully, however, most of sloth life keeps them in the canopy of the forest: eating, sleeping and reproducing all take place aloft. Sloths descend only once a week to defecate (yes–one poop per week!) – a slow move that leaves them vulnerable to forest floor predators.

With a metabolic rate half that of other animals their size and the lowest body temperature of any placental mammal, the sloth has some good reasons for its slothfulness. But it’s no slacker. Slow, deliberate movements are a useful strategy to hide from airborne predators and its coat grows a symbiotic algae which give their fur a greenish color, helping with camouflage. The sloth also boasts nine cervical vertebrae (two more than most other mammals), letting it rotate its head 270 degrees for a (practically) panoramic view.

baby sloth
A baby Three-toed sloth looking adorable.

Sloths live up to thirty years, spending the first clinging their mothers. Mom teaches baby the location of the trees she prefers for home range feeding, a preference inherited by the young. While some sloths can eat up to ninety different types of leaves, they typically are acclimated to only 5 or 6 different species. This means that sloths are highly dependent on the specific diet introduced by their mother – one reason it is difficult for sloths to thrive in captivity.

Recent increases in popularity have made sloths a pet-poaching target, a dangerous fate for the malnutrition-prone sloth due to its highly specialized biology, limited diet flexibility, and precarious metabolism. Individuals who are not qualified or trained to care for the particular needs of a sloth can easily (and unintentionally) starve them.

Sloths thrive in their natural habitat – the tropical forests of Central and South America, including the Children’s Eternal Rainforest. Protecting these tracts of undisturbed wilderness means protecting and preserving these magical and adorable creatures.