Sloth Stories

The following is a compilation of stories about sloths from the past volumes of the Rainforest Connection.

sloth looking at the camera

Jane says this about today's excitement:

"This morning on our census rounds, we discovered sloths. Now, others have seen a sloth or two at the most at the same time, (not very often, though.) Well, First I saw one. Took me a few seconds to be sure it was a sloth and not a monkey. He was about forty feet up in a tree. I checked him out with my binoculars and called for Jackie to look. She had been watching squirrels in a mating chase. All of a sudden, I saw movement in an adjacent tree and there was another one. Also a male. The second one appeared to be moving after the first. Now, you know about sloths and how they move soooo slowly, right? So, when I speak of a sloth chase you can picture this slow motion action here. Just when the second sloth had about reached the area where the first one had moved to, we both saw a third male heading the same way. We watched for almost an hour. (Told ya they move slooowly.) We even heard them calling, which many here say they've not heard. They all converged on one limb and began flailing at each other. We saw a few punches connect, then one of them moved away to another tree, defeated. The other two kept slugging it out. We were getting stiff necks watching this event in the tree tops. Suddenly, there was a rustle of leaves and the smaller of the two came crashing at least 60 feet to the ground about 15 feet from where we stood, amazed. We immediately rushed through the vines and around trees to get to him.

He seemed not to be hurt and began to move toward the nearest trunk which was actually a very small tree. I went right over to him, could have easily touched him but didn't (don't want his cooties) and began taking pictures. Jackie got good video too. We watched until he figured out how to get himself from the small tree to the larger one using thin vines. He may be slow, but he sure wasn't stupid. Unless you call fighting 60 feet off the ground stupid. He seemed to be looking over his options, trying to figure out the right course to take.

Well, that's my sloth story. What a day!" BYE!

Today we also have another sloth story. This time the story is from Pat Detamore in Georgia. Pat is a friend of Jackie who lived in Panama for about 40 years and is a naturalist who introduced Jackie to the rainforest. Jackie was her houseguest many times in Panama and they have traveled together to Peru and Alaska, as well as camping in many places in Panama. Pat wrote the following to her grandson Tyler, who is a 5th grader in Florida and is online with the Rainforest Connection:

"Dear Tyler,

Your Mom said you were interested in the Rainforest Connection story about the sloths. She must have told you we used to have a 3-toed sloth as a pet. Sometimes I would take it for a ride in the car. It rode clinging with its long, curved claws to my collar and looked like a fat, furry scarf around my neck.

We kept the sloth (which we named Gertrude) in a big cage (about the size of your kitchen counter) in the back yard. Since a sloth's muscles are used mostly for hanging upside down, they are not strong enough to support it upright to walk on the ground. So I made sure our sloth had several branches to hang from in the cage. I put a box of kitty litter on the floor in one corner of the cage and Gertrude always used the box as her bathroom.

The diet of 3-toed sloths is mainly the young, tender leaves of one kind of tree, the cecropia (pronounced sa-crow-pee-uh) -- a tree that is also home to a certain kind of very fierce ant. I had to go out nearly every day to pick leaves for our sloth. The tree can grow quite tall, and the leaves that the sloth likes are near the top or at the ends of the branches. So I had to look for young trees that I would not need to climb, because of the ants. There was another problem as well. The cecropia leaves wilted very quickly in the hot tropical sun, so I had to carry an ice chest partly filled with cold water in my car, so that they would be still fresh when I got them home.

On the days that I did not take Gertrude with me to gather leaves for her, she waited anxiously for me to bring them back to her. When she heard me coming, she would call out to me, making a sound like the whistle of a bird, and come swinging along her branch to the side of the cage where the door was located.

She liked to eat, but she liked to be petted even more. She always hated to go back in the cage after I had had her out for awhile, and would cry and cling to my clothing when I tried to put her back inside. She would cling with those long claws on all four feet, and sometimes it was difficult to get them all pried loose at the same time!

Do you think you would like a sloth as a pet?"

We really enjoyed Pat's story and hope you do too. The sloths that Jackie and Jane saw fighting the other day were also 3-toed sloths, but 2-toed sloths live on BCI too. The 2-toed sloths are not as common as the 3-toed. We can send more information if you have questions.

We keep getting questions about sloths! This is great, because Greg and I find them really fascinating. We have some questions from Josh Baron, who heads the Stevens Institute NIE network for teachers, CyberTeacher, and who has very kindly forwarded our journal entries to his own mailing list. Josh asks:

"1) I was wondering why sloths move so slowly? Is it to prevent over heating? Or maybe due to its food it eats being low in energy?"

Well, Josh, you ask some very important questions here about the adaptations of sloths. (this is Jackie writing here) The best guess I have heard is that most of what sloths do is aimed at being invisible. They have greenish, trashy-looking fur that blends in with the forest debris that normally hangs from trees. They move so slowly that it's hard for a predator to detect the movement. They hang up in tree tops, again hard to see. But you are on target also with the guess about their food: leaves are rather low in energy content, so conserving energy should be important to them. Not all the answers are in on this, however. There were some studies done to see if sloths' nerves might transmit impulses at a slower rate than in other mammals, but the results of that study showed no difference in rate of transmission. They are slow for some other reason than the physiology of their nerves. And they do tend to have rather low body temperatures for mammals. I will find out details on that if I have the resources here.

Josh also asked:

"2) I noted that sloths only eat the leaves of one type of tree, I find this very interesting since it seems that it would be a disadvantage to the animal. Are there any theories on why it has such a limited diet?"

Actually, detailed studies of sloths on BCI done with radio transmitters attached to the sloths showed that they have a very varied diet. They do like cecropia very much --it's a species that grows quickly at the edges of forests and is located in places where people are likely to see sloths. And it's easy to collect Cecropia because the trees are not very tall compared to many of the forest trees on BCI.