Often thought of as soft, cute, and cuddly, sloths have become very popular. However, there are a lot misconceptions about them!
Many people believe that they are just lazy animals that spend most of the day sleeping. This inaccurate depiction has led to increased tourist interference and illegal trading of this species on the black market.
Aside from the dangers imposed by humans, the animal kingdom also can pose threats to these creatures. So how do sloths defend themselves in the wild? What are their survival tactics?
We address these questions and more below on sloth defense.
Sloths Under Threat
There are six sub-species of sloths, all native to South American and Central American rainforests.
Unfortunately, these precious animals' livelihoods are under threat due to deforestation, degradation of the forests, and illegal trafficking. Some Central American organizations estimate that 80-90 percent of trafficked sloths die in transportation and captivity.
Sloths are also at risk because of natural predators. Sloth predators include jaguars, ocelots, and harpy eagles.
Despite these threats, sloths are surprisingly resilient. They are unique animals, and there is a lot more to them than we may initially perceive.
One fact that may come as a surprise is that they don't actually spend full days sleeping. Research shows that in most cases, they generally only sleep for 8-10 hours per day.
In their waking hours, the creatures use various survival tactics, such as their slowness, digestion rate, and camouflage, to keep themselves safe throughout the day.
Slowness as Sloth Defense
Three-toed sloths are the slowest-moving mammals in the world. This slowness allows them to conserve far more energy than if they were moving quickly or at speeds average for other species their size.
In the animal kingdom, there are two types of animals: cold-blooded and warm-blooded.
Some animals move slowly in cool temperatures, such as cold-blooded ectotherms, like lizards and frogs. These animals have limited mobility and speed due to their inability to regulate their body temperatures.
In contrast, homeothermic mammals regulate and maintain a constant, high core temperature. However, a higher core temperature requires a high metabolic rate. To sustain high metabolic processing rates, these mammals need to eat a considerable amount of food as fuel.
Sloths seem to fit in between these two categories. They move slowly in any temperature but also operate with a very low body temperature and regulate their core temperatures. Similar to the ectotherms, sloths use postural and behavioral adjustments to control their body temperatures. They also take tend to sunbathe when possible to gain body heat.
Since these animals are continually moving in slow motion, they can use minimal amounts of energy. They can also operate with the lowest metabolic rate of any non-hibernating mammals.
Due to their assortment of energy-saving traits, sloths cannot move very quickly. While this may seem detrimental to their ability to run from predators, it actually tends to work in their favor.
The sloth predators find their prey primarily by detecting movement. Since sloths move at such a slow and steady pace, their slowness can work as a form of sloth defense and camouflage as their predators don't notice them moving.
Eating Habits and Digestion Rate
Since their bodies work with such a slow metabolic rate, sloths also don't spend a lot of time looking for food. However, when they do eat, they eat a primarily leaf-based diet.
Most sloths reside in either South American or Central American rainforests. They often eat the leaves from the rainforest trees, which can be rubbery and chewy. These leaves also often contain a variety of toxins that protect the trees. Luckily, sloths have a robust digestive system that breaks down these types of leaves.
Sloths have a four-chambered stomach, similar to cows, goats, and camels. Their four-chambered stomach houses various bacteria, which helps them slowly and safely break down the leaves into digestible nutrients.
Another interesting aspect about these animals is how they digest their food. Most mammals' digestion rate depends on their particular body size, meaning larger animals need more time to digest their food. Peculiarly, sloths do not appear to follow this rule.
The specific factors that determine their rate of digestion is not yet apparent. However, most scientists estimate that the time it takes sloths to process food from ingestion to excretion tends to vary between 157 and 1,200 hours. That translates to some amount of time between 6.5 and 50 days!
Because the creatures have a slow digestion rate and do not have to look for food often, it also works to their favor. Sloths can remain hidden and camouflaged and avoid being vulnerable in the open.
Besides their slowness and four-chambered stomach, another factor contributing to their camouflage is their symbiotic relationship with organisms living in their fur.
Sloth fur is often full of macro- and microorganisms, such as fungi, algae, and moths. These organisms receive shelter in their fur. In exchange, these organisms directly contribute to the sloth's survival tactics.
Fungi help to deter malaria and Chagas disease-causing parasites. The algae provide them with a supplemental source of nutrition and blend in with their leafy surroundings. And moths help in creating fertilizer for the algae to grow.
Help Save The Sloths
Sloths have evolved to avoid interactions with predators in the wild. But the most significant risks they face are deforestation, illegal trade, and tourism.
Traders will take sloths to sell in illegal markets. It is dangerous for their wellbeing, as many cannot survive in captivity. Even those rescued from illegal trading continue to face difficulties in life. Depending on how old they were when taken, they may not survive in the wild and need to live in a conservation center.
When tourists visit natural areas where sloths reside, it can cause undue distress for the animals. Some guides try to handle sloths or let people hold them, which can be dangerous for all parties involved. By improperly handling sloths and surrounding them with unfamiliar noises and lights, it can cause them to experience high levels of stress and fear.
If you are on a tour that features wild sloths, say no to holding them for photos. You can save the animals from unnecessary trauma.
You can also help raise funds directly for conservation and rehabilitation. Shop our store today to help protect sloths in their natural habitat!