Wondrous Wildlife
By Vern and Lori Gieger
Sloths Could Save Your Life

     We all know that sloth is one of the seven deadly sins but did you know that a sloth is also an animal with a rather strange appearance? Collectively known as the living sloths, these animals consist of six species from the tropical rainforests of Central and South America.
     Sloths are omnivores. Their diet consists of shoots and leaves although they may also eat small birds, reptiles and insects. They do not get many nutrients from the leaves that form the majority of their diet; as a result they don’t seem to have a great deal of energy. The only defense sloths have against predators are their claws, camouflage and the fact they move rather slowly in their tree top homes and do not often attract attention.
     Feeding, mating and birth all occur in trees. Defecation and urination, however, occurs on the ground and sloths make their way to the ground once or twice a week to eliminate in a hole that is dug by the tail while the sloth clings with its forelegs to the tree trunk or vine above. It is during this process the females of the various moths, beetles and mites that live on the sloth fur will temporarily leave their shaggy host to deposit eggs on its dung. Much like a house cat they ensure that the hole is covered with leaf litter on completion.
     Although this takes less than 30 minutes, many jaguar kills of sloths are reported to occur during this period. Locomotion in trees is slow as they use their claws as hooks both in vertical and horizontal progression. Terrestrial movement is reduced to a crawl. The sloth prefers to hook objects with its claws and pull itself forwards. Progress under such conditions has been clocked at a whopping 0.25 mph. Swimming is much easier, and sloths are often observed crossing rivers. Though typically the sloth’s movements are generally slow, they can move quite quickly if threatened. Their main predators are large eagles, especially the harpy eagle, and jaguars.
     Sexual maturity is reached at about three years. One young is produced per year. Nursing requires six to eight weeks. Weaning occurs as infants first lick leaf fragments from their mother’s fur and lips and later sharing the leaves being eaten by the mother. To save energy, sloths barely regulate their body temperature; however pregnant females do invest energy to keep their bodies a few degrees above ambient temperature, the better to develop their embryo. Sloths may live 20 years in the wild.
     One species is classified as Endangered by the IUCN and the U.S. Department of the Interior, due to its habitat being depleted by lumber extraction and agricultural activities. Other than being an amusing oddity of the animal kingdom, interesting to see, one may assume it has little to offer mankind. However, several tropical rainforest species, including sloths, are being recognized for their potential to further human medicine.
     Sloths are known for their ability to heal quickly, avoid infection, and survive the most severe injuries. Researchers are investigating the basis of this healing response with hopes to develop improved drugs or treatment methods for severe wounds. Amazing, some day, some people may owe their life to this strange fuzzy creature.