Now our speedy way of life is starting to shake, says Lucy Cooke, we should look to the humble sloth for answers.
In the beginning there was sloth
People say, what’s in a name? well, quite a lot when it is a synonym for a deadly sin.
Yes the poor old sloth was damned from the moment he was christened after one of the world’s most wicked transgressions. A pretty damaging public relations blow by anyone’s standard.
But which came first: the animal or the sin?
When early European explorers descended upon the Americas in the sixteenth century they encountered many strange animals and described these novel beasts upon their return to Europe.
One of the most notable was Oviedo Valdes, a Spanish knight who published a pioneering Natural History of the New World. A man not known for mincing his words (or telling the truth for that matter) he described the sloth as the stupidest animal on the planet.
Pretty savage words but at least at this stage the sloth had a more upbeat, if somewhat sarcastic name. According to Oviedo some of his fellow Christians were referring to it ironically as ‘Perico Ligero’ or ‘Nimble Peter’. Proof, if proof were needed, why there are so few successful Christians on the comedy circuit.
At this time the Church was already peddling the idea of Seven Deadly Sins – a set of spiritually fatal vices designed to keep the community in check. But sloth – spiritual and physical laziness – had yet to hit the charts.
It wasn’t until the seventeenth century, after years of arguing, the Holy powers-that-be finally decided on its definitive top seven sins. And sloth snuggled in at number four.
Sloth’s new found fame as a bona fide sin provided the largely Catholic explorers with inspiration for a hilarious new nickname for our favourite dozy folivore.
But it was thanks to celebrated French naturalist Georges Buffon that the moniker really stuck, when he became the first person to scientifically describe the sloth in 1749.
‘Slowness, habitual pain, and stupidity are the results of this strange and bungled conformation. These sloths are the lowest form of existence. One more defect would have made their lives impossible.’
It’s lucky the sloth is such an affable chap. And doesn’t read or speak French because, if he did, I’m sure that even he would struggle to swallow such slurs without a (very slow) fight.
Buffon, or Buffoon as I believe it is pronounced, had clearly missed the point. Thanks to Darwin we now understand that natural selection weeds out the weak. Any animal alive today is an evolutionary winner by virtue of its very existence.
But Buffon was well respected and his lengthy diatribe proved an enduring legacy for the sloth’s reputation. Almost a century later Baron Cuvier’s seminal animal encyclopaedia tarred the sloth with a similar brush: ‘Nature seems to have amused herself by producing something so imperfect and grotesque.’
The die had been cast. The sloth’s destiny to be nature’s most misunderstood mammal was set.
But we humans couldn’t have been more wrong. Rather than being a laughable loser the sloth is in fact a miracle of evolution, perfectly adapted to his slow arboreal lifestyle and as we shall discover, quietly rather successful.
What is a sloth?
Sloths are one of the planet’s most enigmatic and eccentric creatures. Famous for being the world’s laziest mammal, these masters of mellow spend up to 70 per cent of their time, ahem ‘resting’ and move at an absurdly slow pace, as if they are in, or perhaps on, glue.
Theirs is an inverted existence, hanging about in the trees of Central and South America. They do everything upside-down: sleep, eat, mate and even give birth. Even their fur grows in the opposite direction to normal – with a parting down the middle of their tummy.
These vegetarian pacifists are the original tree-huggers and fall into two distinct families. They look quite different and are defined, somewhat misleadingly, by how many digits they have.
So-called two-toed, Choloepus sloths actually have three toes, but only two fingers and look like a cross between a Wookiee and a pig. They are about the size of a small spaniel, turned upside down with coat hangers for hands.
Their long, thick fur ranges from blonde to brunette but both are equally bad tempered. Solitary in nature, they object to being petted and if approached by something unfamiliar like a hand they will hiss with open mouths to expose a pair of quite terrifying looking teeth. Along with their hooked hands, their dirty great fangs could inflict a nasty wound if their slow-mo swipes weren’t quite as easy to dodge.
Three-toed Bradypus sloths, have three fingers and three toes, medieval haircuts and Mona Lisa smiles. They are slightly smaller than their two fingered cousin – about the size of a domestic cat under all that shaggy mottled grey and brown fur – less cranky but significantly more cryptic. They are far fussier eaters and for this reason rarely survive in captivity.
There are four species of Bradypus including the marvellous maned sloth of Brazil that looks uncannily like a coconut with a mullet. This sartorial sloth, found only in the Atlantic rainforest of Brazil, is most definitely coiffed for business at the front, party at the back.
Perhaps the most peculiar are the pint-sized pygmy sloths; just half the size of regular sloths and only found on a single island off the Caribbean coast of Panama.
These dwarf sloths live in the mangrove swamps and spend their time snoozing and grazing on algae that scientists have discovered contains alkaloids with a similar property to Valium. So they don’t just look stoned. They are stoned. Making them something of an evolutionary cul de sac if ever there was one.
Bradypus and Choloepus sloths are actually only distantly related like cats and dogs, having diverged some 40 million years ago to become genetically quite distinct creatures.
Bradypus for example have small tails and extra neck vertebrae that enable them to turn their heads through 270 degrees and become excellent, if somewhat unlikely, swimmers.
Choloepus have no tail and no extra neck vertebrae, sink like a stone in water and are as such very unlikely to volunteer for a bath.
But despite their obvious differences they both share the same topsy-turvy mellow lifestyle and are lumped together in the same sinful group.
People often mistake sloths for monkeys or bears but they are actually Xenarthrans – an ancient group of mammals that sound like they should be starring in an episode of Star Trek and they have the sci-fi looks to match.
This wonderfully eclectic group includes some of the planet’s most other-worldly-looking oddballs: the armadillos, anteaters and, of course, the sloths.
The sloth’s closest living cousins are the more appropriately named anteaters – an animal that makes its living, erm, eating ants. Lots and lots of them.
The biggest of the bunch, the Giant Anteater, can consume up to 35,000 a day. He achieves this feat using a two-foot tongue that is stickier than a cinema carpet, which he flicks at a rate of 160 times a minute into swarming nests of angry ants. Giving him not just one of the longest but also the hardest-working tongues in the Animal Kingdom.
This fact may or may not be connected with the early European explorer’s fanciful belief that these lumbering beasts were in fact lesbians.
They believed Giant Anteaters were exclusively female and procreated using their fabulous elongated proboscis. These Sapphic nozzle nuzzlers were understandably quite the attraction back in the UK at travelling fairs of New World curiosities.
Hardly a dignified existence for a macho Latino mammal. But then man has not been kind to the Xenarthrans, just ask the Armadillo.
The Aztecs called them ‘turtle rabbits’ which is a fair enough description. With scaly bony plates covering their back, head, legs and tail they resemble a battle-ready rabbit on the Bayeux tapestry. This armour-plated carapace enables them to roll into a ball protecting their soft underbelly, much like a woodlouse, when under attack.
Sadly this isn’t enough to protect it from roads. Or people. Armadillos are common road kill thanks to their unfortunate habit of jumping three feet in the air when startled; the perfect height to collide with the radiator of a truck.
If the cars don’t get them then the cowboys will. Local Argentinean gauchos consider them the ultimate campfire ready meal, roasting them in their shell for dinner. Then polishing the remains, adding a few strings and using them as a form of ukulele for after supper sing-alongs.
There are around 20 surviving species of armadillo including the Pink Fairy and the Screaming Hairy. Names, which I’m assured, have nothing to do with their sexuality and everything to do with their eccentric looks.
On the surface this kooky band of modern-day misfits appear to have little in common. But closer inspection reveals they all share tiny brains, a distinct lack of front teeth and no external testicles. None of which they are especially keen to publicise. So it’s a good thing they were finally named Xenarthra or ‘strange joints’ after their other unifying feature – an unusually flexible spine.
Sloth: a strategy for success
Sloths have haunted the planet in one shape or another for over 60 million years, managing to outlive the saber-tooth tiger and the dinosaurs.
Of the six species alive today, only two are considered endangered. Which is pretty good going for a lazy loser of an animal, and significantly better than other, more flashy mammals its size like ocelots, giant otters or jaguars.
In fact scientific surveys show that sloths make up as much as two-thirds of the mammalian biomass in certain tropical jungles, which is biology speak for: ‘You can take your patronising looks and piss off, I’m pretty bloody successful thank you very much.’
It may not be as glamorous, but as a survival strategy sloth-like slowness is arguably better than speed. Just ask the cheetah. Unlike the sloth, the Ferrari of the animal world is highly endangered and must suffer humiliation and hard work in order to survive.
The cheetah is locked in an evolutionary arms race with his dinner. He must outrun the sprightly antelope or he won’t eat. So he’s evolved for short bursts of intense speed at the expense of strength.
It is a little known fact that cheetahs lose up to half their kills to hyenas, as they cannot risk getting damaged in a fight. They are basically a bunch of chickens – something hyenas find highly amusing.
Incidentally one animal that definitely doesn’t find this funny is the female cheetah. She’s quite frankly cheesed off with boyfriends that aren’t just wimpy but also fire blanks.
It is believed by some that sloth’s nerves have even evolved not to react to loud noises so they don’t flinch and make themselves known if spooked. So there is no point saying boo to a sloth, he is simply too chilled out to notice.
This fact was discovered by the famous American naturalist William Beebe. Who, back in the 1920s when scientific endeavour was still a gentleman’s sport, once spent ten days following a three-toed sloth around the rainforest.
‘I have fired a gun close to a slumbering sloth, and to one feeding, and aroused but little attention,’ he states in his journal of the time.
They were probably hoping that by ignoring him, he’d leave them alone and aggravate something else in the name of science. But to no avail. Beebe kept up his sloth-bothering act for ten full days and nights during which time he poked and prodded and eventually managed to piss off one of the gentlest creatures on the planet.
At which point he noted: ‘When fully enraged, male sloths will, at this stage, slowly reach forward, open the mouth and attempt a languid bite.’
Quite right too. But with the savage capacity of a denture-less granny, a good gumming was probably the best the Bradypus could muster.
The increasingly bored and barbarous Beebe went on to report a sloth recovering, with no apparent ill effects, after 40 minutes immersion in water. Another was even said to have survived for 30 hours after decerebration. A simply mind-boggling story on many levels.
Beebe’s methodology was savage beyond belief but he had indeed stumbled upon another of the sloth’s superpowers: its extraordinary ability to cheat death.
Like some sort of Hollywood stunt man, people have witnessed sloths falling 90 feet to the forest floor and barely blinking an eye. And in the event of an injury they are said to have remarkable freedom from infection.
‘This poor ill formed creature is the most tenacious to life,’ wrote the nineteenth-century naturalist Charles Waterton. ‘It exists long after it has received wounds which would have destroyed any other animal.’
Beebe also observed that the female Bradypus in heat will scream every hour for several days to solicit a mate. He experimented with reproducing the tone, which he claimed was upper D sharp. Surrounding notes such as C or E had no effect on male sloths he said but ‘D-sharp aroused all the interest their poor dull minds could bring to bear’.
Sloth sex it turns out is remarkably athletic. But after a flurry of creative posturing by the male, the deed itself is over and done with in less than five seconds. It turns out that sex is the only thing a sloth does quickly. Which makes sense as a sloth is most vulnerable to attack when on the job.
Sloths are also vulnerable to attack when going to the loo – something they do just once a week at the base of a tree. This eccentric bathroom behaviour was long considered to be one of the great mysteries of sloth behaviour. Why did they not simply let drop from a branch and avoid the risk of coming to the ground and being eaten?
The answer of course is sex. Female sloths leave secret smelly messages for potential mates in their dung letting them know which tree they are hiding in and whether they are in the mood for love. So it is now believed that male sloths will use bathroom trips as a way of sniffing out further mates. Making them the George Michael or Joe Orton of the animal world.
Beebe was the first in a long line of scientists fascinated by the sloth’s idiosyncratic biology. Most recently Bryson Voirin of the Max Plank Institute in Frankfurt has managed to dispel one of the greatest myths about our somnolent friends.
Bryson placed sleep monitors on wild pygmy sloths and found that instead of sleeping for 17 hours a day as people previously estimated, the sloths in his study actually spent only 10–12 hours a day snoozing.
More work is required to establish whether pint-sized pygmy sloths need less sleep than their full-sized cousins but it certainly challenges the sloth’s reputation as the world’s laziest animal.
The koala for instance is far lazier. He sleeps about 20 hours a day. Yet no one derides him for his napping habits. He is instead an Australian national treasure. Which perhaps says more about Australians than they’d like to admit.
I’ve never understood why people think koalas are so cute. They are in fact bad-tempered tiny-brained brutes, stoned out of their minds on eucalyptus leaves. They also suffer from endemic venereal diseases, which makes the idea of cuddling a koala less than appealing.
The real Rip Van Winkles of the animal world of course are the
erm winkles. Gastropods such as snails, limpets and periwinkles sleep longer than any other species. Some snails have even been known to nod off for up to three years.
Not that there is anything wrong with sleep. It is essential to life. In fact experiments have shown that rats and flies deprived of sleep die more quickly than those deprived of food.
Brain nerves repair themselves during sleep and dreaming allows the day’s experiences to be committed to long-term memory. In fact sleep is so important that animals in hibernation will come out of hibernation in order to go to sleep for a few days before returning to hibernation.
So sleep keeps you young and smart and sloth surpasses speed as a strategy for success. It would seem that human thinking has been even more topsy-turvy than the lifestyle of out favourite dozy folivore.
We humans need to evolve our narrow-minded perception, recognise the sloth as an energy-saving totem for the twenty-first century and listen to all he can teach us.
The time has come for us to release our inner sloth and enjoy more life at a speed that nature intended.
Lucy Cooke is a zoologist and author of The Unexpected Truth About Animals (Black Swan). She’s a regular on prime time natural history TV shows. Her forthcoming book is Bitch: Female of the Species.
A longer version of this article appeared in Idler 47: Cultivate Yourself (2014)
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