Two-toed sloth, Costa Rica. Photo: Athena Alexander

It’s times like these, when the world is swirling, that I look to my slow-moving wildlife friends to help me slow down, get grounded. Let’s take a look at the world’s slowest mammal: the sloth.


Lethargic and sedentary, sloths can be found in the tropical rainforests of South and Central America. We had the thrill of seeing a few individuals in Costa Rica.


Wild Bromeliads, Costa Rica Rainforest. Photo: Athena Alexander


With a name that means “laziness,” sloths have very slow metabolism and are motionless 90% of the time.


About the size of a medium dog, a sloth is difficult to spot in the rainforest because they are deeply hidden in tree canopies, and usually high up.


Rainforest. Photo: Athena Alexander


They move so slow that algae grows in their fur. The algae helps them blend into the foliage. In addition to the algae, the fur has an ecosystem of arthropods–moths, beetles, mites, and more.


Vulnerable in their sluggishness, this arboreal mammal stays hidden in the treetop to avoid predators. With a typical life span of 12 years, some sloths are born, live, and die in the same tree.


Equipped with claws for hands and feet, sloths hang upside down in trees. They cannot walk, so they drag themselves along the ground, if necessary. Several locals told us they saw sloths using telephone lines to move about, when there were no trees.


With poor vision and poor hearing, sloths rely on smell and touch to find food.


There are two extant families of sloths:  the two-toed and three-toed. Both are photographed here. But this title is misleading, because all sloths have three toes, even the ones named two-toed…and they’re not toes, they’re claws.


The two-toed sloths eat fruit, leaves, insects and small lizards; three-toed sloths are herbivorous, eat leaves and buds.


Wikipedia Sloth


When we travelled to Costa Rica, we hoped to see many natural beauties, but the sloth was top on our list. We asked many people where we might see a wild sloth, including the cab driver who met us at the airport.


En route to our destination, the cab driver proudly stopped in a park in a very small town and took us directly to The Tree.


Because the sloth rarely moves, the cab driver knew exactly the tree and limb on which to find the sloth.


It looked liked a hairy wasp nest. It was motionless, and impossible to recognize. Taking a photograph was pointless. But still, it was a thrill.


A week later, we were in a Costa Rican rainforest with a guide. He, too, knew exactly where to take us to see the sloths.


It was hot, sticky, and buggy, and there was much going on in this active rainforest. Birds were flitting, toucans were squawking, monkeys were shrieking, and butterflies fluttered around us.


The sloths were conked out, deep in sleep.


Over one hundred feet (30m) up, and hidden in a tangle of leaves and vines, there was one sloth. In a different tree farther away, was another.


Binoculars and camera at the ready, we stood there craning our necks for over a half hour, waiting for a moment when the sloth would move. We were ready for a twitch, a wink, an opening eyelid, anything.


Eventually the three-toed sloth opened one eye halfway, for a moment. It was marvelous. Athena caught the moment (below).

Three-toed sloth, Costa Rica. Photo: Athena Alexander


Notice the green tint in the arm covering the face…that’s algae.


About once a week they make their way down the tree to go to the bathroom. They urinate, defecate, bury it, and climb back up.


Crazy as it sounds, I sure would like to see that.


Written by Jet Eliot.

Photographs by Athena Alexander.

Green Violetear Hummingbird, Costa Rica. Photo: Athena Alexander


62 thoughts on “Sloths

    • Yes, a chilled-out creature indeed. We were thrilled to see them in the wild, and glad I had a few photos to share of them. Thanks for your wonderful comment, Mike.

    • While there’s not a lot of similarity between cats and sloths, both creatures do like their sleep, it’s true. Always great to hear from you, Washe Koda, thank you for stopping by.

    • I really liked that you called sloths the “perfect Buddhist monks,” Eliza. I’m smiling really big right now. No wonder I like sloths so much! Warmest thanks, my friend.

  1. Thanks for this! “Slow down, get grounded” seems like great advice, a little sloth inspired social distancing.
    These are wonderful creatures, and your words and Athena’s photographs were a delight to see and read today.
    Take care, and enjoy the weekend ahead!

    • I’m happy you enjoyed the grounding essence of the sloths, PC. They take the cake for reminding us to chill. It’s always a joy to hear from you, thanks for your visit and ongoing support. I will have a good weekend, going to SF, and I hope you and Mrs. PC do too.

  2. Another creature to teach us patience, what wonders nature has for us! I can sometimes relate to feeling like a sloth, I imagine many of us could one time or another. 😉 Adorable animal, awesome photos of them and the hummingbird!

    • I agree, Donna, sloths are another creature for teaching us patience. Patience seems to be in short supply these days, so hopefully the sloth spirit will embrace a few of us. Thanks so much for your lovely comment and visit, Donna.

  3. Lovely post! And I loved the wind up of a hummingbird in comparison – which move so fast you can’t even see them sometimes! I appreciated the beautiful photos of the bromeliads and rainforest, too. Thanks, as always.

    • You can imagine how tucked into the foliage the sloths get, and then so far up in the trees–that Athena got any photos was amazing. So I’m glad you enjoyed the other photos of the Costa Rican rainforest too, Nan. And as always, I really appreciate your weekly visits and cheerful comments.

    • I’m sure you will be seeing these same Costa Rican scenes in the very near future, Amy. Until then, I’m glad I could give you an easy, effortless look. My warm thanks.

  4. One good thing about finding a sloth, if you forgot your camera or had to go back for a battery, you wouldn’t have to worry about the sloth not being there when you got back. And you wouldn’t have to set your camera to a high shutter speed. 😉

    • Oh, that’s a really fun comment, Anneli. And so true! All the issues that plague a wildlife photographer don’t really exist with sloths, except for the inaccessibility and their ever-sleeping ways. Thanks so much, my friend, for giving me a smile and laugh.

  5. I love this post, Jet! Not only because of the terrific photos, or because I really love Costa Rica…. but because you always include such fascinating and unusual facts about the places and creatures you and Athena encounter in your travels! Thanks for sharing!

    • Wonderful to get your cheerful comment, Kirt. Athena worked very creatively and patiently to capture the sloths, I’m glad you enjoyed it. Fun mammal to share. Warm thanks, my friend.

  6. What a perfect topic for these times of semi quarantine. I always learn so much from your posts, Jet. I had no idea that sloths supported a little ecosystem in their fur! It is a wonder they can survive with all their limitations, but isn’t it encouraging to know that one doesn’t have to be busy, busy, busy all the time to make beneficial contributions.

    • I so enjoyed your comment, LuAnne. I do find it encouraging and enlightening, yes, to know that one doesn’t have to be busy all the time to make beneficial contributions. Many thanks and cheers to you!

  7. What an amazing animal, Jet. I am not sure I would describe them as beauties but they are certainly fascinating. I had not appreciated just how immobile they are – enough to allow algae to grow and other creatures to live! I admire your determination to wait for an eyelid to move 🙂
    I love those bromeliads standing up on the branch as well – exploding with life! And the humming bird and flower too. Thank you for another look at an aspect of this world I cannot experience first hand.

    • It is such a pleasure to bring the magical world of Costa Rica to you, Alastair. We often see photos of sloths with big open eyes and faces that look like they’re smiling. That doesn’t really happen in the wild, from what I’ve experienced, and not to be expected given the nature of this somnolent mammal. And the bromeliads on the tree limb were wonderful, I agree. That was a rather common scene, if you can believe it, as were hummingbirds. Rainforests are truly brimming with life. Lovely to “see” you, thanks so much Alastair.

  8. I actually laughed out loud, Jet, as you were describing your wait to see anything. LOL What an amazing world we live in. I honestly don’t know how you tolerated the rain forest. I’d be terrified of bugs and bites and odd creatures nesting in my hair. Noooooo thank you! You’re a lot braver then I am. Really enjoyed this post. Thank you!

  9. There are times when I can relate to the lifestyle of a sloth. There are times when I very much feel like one. It’s hard to believe I haven’t posted for a solid month! Can’t help but wonder if this post of yours was trying to tell me something? 😀 Apparently it gave me the needed nudge.

  10. Truly amaaaazing information! I saw a sloth in the Calgary Zoo a few years ago. Astonishing how slow they move. And to spend their entire lives in one tree?!? Thanks for the excellent essay and photos, ladies. 🙂

  11. I think any time you get a see an animal in the wild, it helps ground you. Sloths are such amazing creatures. I have only seen them in a zoo and was amazed by them. I could have watched them move all day. Their motions were so deliberate and beautiful. Thank you for sharing these amazing pictures and all of this great information, Jet!!!!!

  12. Sloths are wonderful, perfect antidotes to the crazy speed of 21st century life. I love the way a sloth’s fur supports its very own micro-forest of algae! Costa Rica’s a great destination, and your post brought back happy memories. Thank you.

  13. The very first thing I did while reading this was laugh. There are so many tidbits about the sloth itself I didn’t know: that it can grow algae, for example. Then, I grinned at the thought of you two waiting around to see what some sloth action might look like. I’m so glad you got that opened eye from the creature after your wait.

    After reading the post again a couple of times, I sent the link on to a woman I know from Twitter. She lives in DC and apparently is some sort of mover and shaker in the middle bureaucracy, but she attracted me because of her Twitter handle: Shoshana Weissmann, Sloth Committee Chair. Can you imagine what it would be like to be the chairperson of a committee of sloths?! Now I’m laughing again.

    • Wonderful to receive this comment, Linda, thanks so much. Sloths do have a way of making us laugh, they certainly are unique characters in this world. My hearty thanks for your cheerful and fun message and visit.

  14. Jet I have been referring to myself as a sloth for the past week. Although now that I know algae might grow on my fur I’m going to shave my legs and get moving. Dave and I wonder how in the world the sloth has survived evolutionary changes. Does it have no predators? Does its hairy wasp nest disguise offer that much protection? May your dream of seeing a sloth relieve itself in the wild one day come true. Dream big or go home I say. 🙂

    • I got a kick out of your comment, Sue, and am chuckling as I type. It really is amazing that sloths still exist. That algae that grows in their fur helps them to camouflage into the treetops they live in. Their slowness helps too, in that most of their predators (harpy eagles, anaconda snakes and jaguars) hunt looking for movement, and sloths do not offer movement. If humans can manage to keep their rainforests standing, sloths will hopefully continue to survive. Many thanks for your fun comment, much enjoyed.

  15. Hi Jet, I was very much looking forward to your post about Sloths, and I have not been disappointed!! I love your humour Jet, “opened one eye halfway, for a moment. It was marvellous”.
    These sloths are great! Motionless 90% of the time, sometimes live in the same tree for 13 years, two-toed, three-toed……and once a week to the toilet, now that is marvellous too! Thanks Jet, wonderful post, thanks to these wonderfully special creatures.

    • It was an absolute pleasure to share the marvel of the sloths with you, Bertie. I’m glad you get my humor and enjoyed the writing too. Thanks so much for your visit and delightful comment, my friend. I’m glad you’re doing well.

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