Even Taking a Dump Is Deadly for Sloths. How Are They Not Extinct?
Strap in for the sloth’s brilliant survival strategy, because there’s a lot of poo involved.
The first guy that described sloths in an encyclopedia didn’t have very nice things to say about them:
Slowness, habitual pain, and stupidity are the results of this strange and bungled conformation. These sloths are the lowest form of existence. One more defect would have made their lives impossible.
That was French naturalist Georges Buffon. A bit of a twat if you ask me.
Because Mr Gaufres Buffoon forgot to mention one more defect: half of the sloths are killed while they’re taking a dump.
And yet, that habit of risking their lives for a number two is the secret behind their genius survival strategy.
He’s got a point though — sloths do seem terrible
It’s true that I’ve never looked at a sloth and thought “Woah natural selection did a fine job with this one.”
You and I got lost in a supermarket aisle when we were eight, and that was a challenge. Now imagine if you had to survive life in the wild with the reaction time of a sleep-deprived stoner.
Now, this is an animal so slow that if you ever see one walking backwards, there’s a good chance he’s walking forward and he’s been outpaced by the continental drift.
And yet, for some reason, they make things harder for themselves by climbing down to the ground every time their bowels need to drop anchor.
I’ll gauge their odds against jaguars, ocelots and harpy eagles for you: picture an episode of Coyote and the Road Runner, except the Road Runner is deadlocked in a royal squat and it’s metabolically incapable of getting a speeding ticket.
So if half of them never make it back to the canopy, how are Tasmanian tigers extinct but these tiny hungover Chewbaccas are doing just fine?
Can’t they just poo from the tree? Enter the moth hypothesis
Mind you, this is still one of science’s big unsolved questions. We’re still unsure why sloths risk their lives for a ground-level butt burrito cooking. But we have theories.
You know how sloths go around looking like the action figure of the Amazon rainforest, all greenish and biospheric?
Well, that moss on their fur is really a type of algae that they use to supplement their diet. I won’t bore you with the details, but that algae grow thanks to the presence of moths in their fur — which happen to need the sloth’s poop to feed their larvae.
So the sloths risk their lives for these moths, and all they get is a lousy energy snack?
Imagine having a 50% chance of dying when you go to the store to get a Twix that’s made out of your own shit. But hey, that’s how the sloth rolls.
Or is it? Feeding the moths is likely not the reason why they climb down trees to poop
The whole symbiosis with moths has its benefits — but supplementing their diet is likely not it.
For starters, sloths have never been seen licking their fur as cats would, and when raised in captivity, they’ve never shown nutrient deficiencies, despite growing without the algae.
So what’s left? Take a wild guess.
What’s the only thing on this planet that can persuade any life form to pull off some batshit crazy behaviour? Yes, it had to be about sex.
Honestly, I can relate. We men will go vegan, watch 50 Shades of Grey, take guitar lessons, and literally use satellites to send a picture of our bald-headed giggle stick for a single round of hanky panky. Sloths risk their lives to take a dump in the right spots instead.
Apparently, their faeces contain the pheromones that tell each other whether if they’re swiping right tonight and are in the mood or not. Imagine a trail of rose petals, but made of shit.
And that thing about algae and moths? It’s part of the genius too
Sloth’s slowness is not a bug, it’s a feature. They embrace the slo-mo lifestyle: minimal energy expenditure in exchange for minimal energy intake.
In other words: they move very slow, they are very weak, but they don’t have to be constantly and manically searching for food. That’s how they survive on an extremely nutrient-poor leaf diet.
So what’re the algae for? Turns out the sloth’s predators — jaguars, ocelots, and harpy eagles — all detect prey visually.
And what’s the best defence mechanism you can possibly have when you are slow, weak, and can neither fight nor flight?
Camouflage. Exactly the type of camouflage provided by those algae growing on their fur.
Yes, half of the sloths die in the dump-taking process
But by Nature’s rules, that’s still a win, cause the only thing that it takes to succeed in the wild is that your population count doesn’t fall below one.
And given the fact that sloths have roamed the Earth for 64 million years, it’s clear that we’re not talking about a bunch of wildlife noobs in here. They don’t need that naturalist Baguette Gateau whatever-his-name-was to tell them how they’re supposed to do business in the wildlife.
Perhaps I say this just because they’re cute, but I think they are one of the highest forms of existence to ever walk the Earth.
At their own pace, that is.
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