Sloths are known for their incredibly slow-moving natures, but it turns out that such sluggishness also carries over into their bathroom habits. So much so that they only defecate every five to seven days on average, and actually lose up to one-third of their body weight in a single movement! The stool is pushed out in one fell swoop so impressive that horrified/transfixed bystanders can see the animal's stomach shrink.
"If you've ever seen a sloth poo you could only ever describe it as PURE BLISS! They tip their heads back and smile!" emails Sarah Kennedy, co-founder of The Sloth Conservation Foundation, based in the U.K.
The week-long delay between bowel movements is not even the strangest thing about sloth pooping habits. You see, sloths are arboreal creatures, which means that they live, work and play high up in the trees. Their chosen habitats are the rain and cloud forests of Central and South America. Most other arboreal animals, like monkeys, poop from the trees, but not sloths. Instead they "make the slow descent to the canopy to poo at the base of trees," Kennedy says. Sloths do this despite the fact that it's quite perilous. "This behaviour puts them at threat to a lot of predators (like jungle cats) and wastes a lot of their precious energy — which they do not have much of!" she adds. More than half of all sloth deaths occur during potty time when these creatures are very vulnerable to predators.
"A sloth's entire lifestyle is based around avoiding detection and using as little energy as possible," writes zoologist and Sloth Conservation Foundation founder Becky Cliffe in a blog post. "It takes a sloth an entire month to digest just one leaf, meaning that they don't have much wiggle room when it comes to expending energy."
Do a Little Dance, Make a Little Love
The laborious experience of going up and down the tree is compounded by the actual pooping process. Sloths actually do a little dance at the base of the tree to create a hole for the feces, and then shake their hindquarters once more to cover it up. This "poo dance," as Kennedy refers to it requires – you guessed it – plenty of precious energy.
A lot of theories have been put forth about why sloths feel the need to expend so much effort (and expose themselves to so much danger) just to toilet. One theory is that sloth moths, which live in sloth hair, actually lay their eggs in the feces. Then, once they mature they fly up to take residence in their host sloth's fur. Many experts, though, are skeptical of this explanation, because, as Kennedy says, it "doesn't really make sense as the sloth doesn't actually gain anything from that behaviour."
More likely, but as yet unproven, is that the strange behavior comes back to reproduction, as it so often does when living things are involved. "The main reason is probably so that other sloths can find them — particularly males looking for females," Kennedy explains. "Usually the sloths come down every five to seven days but when females are in heat it's every day — so it's likely to be mostly to do with reproduction."
Indeed, it appears that sloth poop says a lot more about the animal than merely what they've been noshing on. "Pheromones present in urine and faeces can provide a lot of important information about the individual animal. If the sloths just let everything go from the canopy, these messages would be easily lost," Cliffe writes. "We have heaps of data showing some really interesting patterns between a female's oestrus cycle and the patterns of defecation."
We'll be waiting for the answer to this mystery. Because if observing sloths teaches anything, it's patience.
Originally Published: Jun 27, 2018