The secret behind sloths’ survival lies in their slowness

Lungi dall’essere un difetto, la snervante lentezza dei bradipi consente a questi animali di ottimizzare le energie e di nascondersi dai predatori.

Sloths are slow, unbelievably slow. They’re considered to be the apotheosis of laziness as there’s no other mammal on our planet that travels at such a slow pace. Naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon wrote: “Slowness and stupidity are the results of the strange and bungled conformation of sloths. Those imperfect sketches of Nature, which, being hardly endowed with the faculty of existence, could not subsist for any length of time, and have accordingly been struck out of the list of beings. One other defect added to the number would have totally prevented their existence.” However, judging a creature that has been roaming the Earth for 64 million years is anything but a good idea. In fact, sloth’s slowness has a precise role.

two-toed sloth
Baby two-toed sloth eating fruit in a rescue centre in Costa Rica © Raul Arboleda/AFP/GettyImages

Slowing down to survive

Sloths have a low metabolic rate and move at a sluggish pace, for a reason. Their purpose is the same of all living creatures: survival. Considering that sloths appeared on the planet millions of years ago, they’ve clearly adopted a winning strategy.

Sloths don’t sleep much

By observing the behaviour of pale-throated sloths (Bradypus tridactylus), researchers found out that – contrary to popular beliefs – these animals don’t spend most of their day snoozing. They only sleep 8-10 hours a day and spend the rest of the day moving at the same, slow pace. Their languid movements allow them to reduce their energy waste. Plus, these mammals are able to control their body temperature thanks to behavioural and postural adjustments.

Bradipo tridattilo con il suo piccolo
Three-toed sloth (bradypus tridactylus) with its cub clinging to its  il suo cucciolo appeso al mantello nella foresta pluviale peruviana (Photo by Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty Images)

If you can’t run, camouflage

Sloths’ diet is mainly based on leaves, which grant a low intake of energy. They thus balance such low calorie intake with reduced energy waste. As a result, sloths can’t move rapidly and run away if a predator attacks them. Their defensive strategy is based on mimicry, a technique they master also thanks to the presence of algae on their coat that creates shades of green, allowing them to become almost invisible in the thick, verdant forests of Central and South America. Sloth’s slowness is an added value for this technique, as main predators including jaguars, ocelots and harpies are used to spot prey for their movements. And sloths move at such a low pace that sometimes they can’t even be seen. Sloth’s lifestyle teaches us that we can’t judge a species just through our anthropocentric lens and that, in the end, being slow can be covenient.

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