Living in the canopy

Paresseux dans l'habitat temporaire © Espace pour la vie (Claude Lafond)
Living in the canopy

Truly lazy? Not at all! The sloth is actually a mammal that’s remarkably well adapted to its arboreal way of life. It’s in this environment, the canopy, that it lives, sleeps, eats and reproduces, and where the female takes care of her baby. The species presented at the Biodôme, the two-toed sloth (Choloepus didactylus), eis an animal the size of a small dog weighing about eight kilograms. Its long curved claws, two on each of the forepaws and three on the rear paws, enable it to hang upside down. Its highly mobile joints, its small shoulder blades and the large reach of its limbs in front and in back allow it to move slowly high up in the tropical rainforest of South America. The speed usually mentioned is between 0.5 and 1.6 km/h.

Why is the sloth slow?

His slow-motion lifestyle is not a sign of weakness or inability, but of a way of surviving, the result of millions of years of selective adaptation and of evolution. For example, the leaves that the sloth eats are difficult to digest and provide little energy. So its body temperature is lower than that of other mammals. It varies a little bit, like that of reptiles, according to the temperature of its environment. Thus its metabolism is very slow, barely 40 to 45 percent of that of another mammal of the same size. This is therefore an animal that’s become an expert in energy conservation.

Once a week

Even though it costs it as much as eight percent of its energy when it comes down to the ground, the sloth must do it about once a week in order to defecate. At that moment it becomes highly vulnerable to ground predators. A number of insects live in the sloth’s fur. When it climbs down to the ground, a species of butterfly takes advantage to lay its eggs in the feces. Once they hatch, the larvae consume the droppings, are transformed and eventually return to the hair of another sloth. Those butterflies, when they defecate into the animal’s coat, increase the nitrogen concentration, which in turn allows for the proliferation of algae, and that increases the sloth’s camouflage capability. Not bad, eh?

Camouflage or food supplement?

Its fur grows in the opposite direction to that of most mammals, that is, from the belly towards the back, which allows rainwater to trickle down by following the hairs, but without wetting the skin. As we saw just above, a number of species of algae grow in its coat, providing it with good camouflage during the rainy season. It was recently discovered that these algae, rich in carbohydrates and lipids, not only serve as camouflage but also round out the sloth’s diet, which is leaf-based. This is one really well-made animal!

Does it actually sleep 15 to 20 hours a day?

A study conducted in captivity on a close relative of our sloths, the three-toed sloth, and using an electroencephalogram, evaluated its sleep period at around 16 hours. Another study carried out in a natural environment on three individuals revealed quite different results, about 10 hours of sleep.

Slow down and become a bit slothful!

The sloth may have a nonchalant appearance, but it’s really well adapted to its environment. Why not follow its example and slow down the pace of our hectic lives a little bit. Taking things slowly is this animal’s strength, after all, not its weakness.

Do you want to get involved?
Sign up for the Our Time to Act newsletter

Share this page

Follow us!

Subscribe to receive by email:
Add new comment
Anonymous's picture