Sloth is defined as “a disinclination to work or exert oneself,” and is included in the Catholic Church’s list of the “seven deadly sins”, along with pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, and wrath. Sounds a bit like a description of my last vacation, how about yours? Without the wrath. Well, maybe I felt a little wrath when a traveling companion dawdled around and made us miss happy hour sunset on the beach.
But sloth? Really? Is it that bad to feel disinclined to work or exert oneself? Isn’t that exactly why we go on vacation? Is being a sloth really that bad? I know I like being a bit lazy at times sitting on the beach just hanging out enjoying the view of Playa Hermosa.
I wanted to investigate this poor creature whose moniker is a synonym for laziness and see if it is really that bad to be a sloth.
Costa Rica is home to two-toed and three-toed sloths. Hoffman’s two-toed is nocturnal and more difficult to spot. The three-toed (Bradypus variegates) is the one you are most likely to see during your visit here, so I will focus on him.
The three-toed sloth is easily identified by its three long claws on each limb. Duh!! That’s where the common name comes from! It has a stubby tail, grayish coat of wiry hair (like a pig’s), extra-long forelimbs, a bright yellow-gold patch between its shoulders, a brownish-black mask across its eyes, and an enigmatic, Mona Lisa smile. Cute but could creepy at the same time.
When I started to look at photos their fur appears to be, well, green? It is because sloths have algae growing on them. Like moss on a rock. Yes, they move that slow—an average of about 5 feet per hour. I guess I am not really a sloth, I do move faster than this when on the beach. The sloth hosts the algae and the algae reciprocate by providing the sloth with nutrients it ingests by licking its fur. And the grayish green color makes the sloth look just like a clump of dry leaves hanging from a branch—perfect for hiding in the jungle! Hence why they are hard to spot easily. The longer the sloth lives, the greener he gets!
The perfect host, the sloth is a slow-moving banquet for hordes of butterflies, beetles, grubs, and mites who likely feed on the algae along with sloth dung. The sloth has a permanent guest always living on it, it is a certain type of moth who makes the sloth its only home on earth. Since the moths do not seem to feed or reproduce in the sloth’s fur, it has been theorized that they simply enjoy a free ride in search of mates. When the sloth mates, the moth’s mate—talk about a double date, but I won’t go there! Once a week, when nature calls, the moths accompany the sloth to the ground and lay their eggs in the sloth droppings.
The sloth spends its days sunbathing high up in the forest canopy, practicing thermo-regulation much like cold-blooded reptiles do. Its body temperature fluctuates from 91 degrees F during the day to 75 degrees F at night, more than that of any other mammal. At night they sleep curled up in a ball to conserve heat since it has so little muscle mass that it cannot shiver to stay warm. Close to the skin is a layer of short, very fine fur that insulates it against heat loss. You’ve probably figured it out by now: yes, the sloth spends up to 20 hours a day sleeping!
Since digestion needs heat for bacterial activity and fermentation, their low body temperature gives them an incredibly low metabolic rate. For these docile creatures, the sun’s warmth is indispensable to the acceleration of the digestive process. Leaves may take up to a month going through the stages of digestion. They should eat more spicy food! That would speed things up.
Indeed, these creatures do everything suspended in the treetops—eat, sleep, mate, give birth. They are ingeniously designed for life in an upside-down world. Some of their internal organs—liver, stomach, spleen, pancreas—are in different positions than those of other mammals. From the end of their webbed fingers and toes extend 3” claws that hook over branches and vines and lock so securely that even dead sloths have been found still hanging upside-down. To avoid a good soaking by a tropical downpour, their hair parts on the belly and grows down around the back–the opposite direction of land-based animals—and the rain runs right off.
So, is a life of sloth really that bad? Days spent sleeping and sun-bathing, moving at a snail’s pace, being the perfect host—it sounds like the recipe for a great vacation!
Now, if you could just go to the bathroom more than once a week…