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.
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.
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.
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).
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.