The extant sloths include six arboreal mammal species of Central and South America and are best-known, quite literally, for their profound sloth.
Sloths are either two-toed (genus Choloepus, or ‘I’m good here, thanks’) or three-toed (genus Bradypus, or ‘I’m good too, but you guys go on up ahead and I’ll be here when you get back’).
Regardless of their number, all sloth toes are dedicated to not moving.
Until relatively recent geological times (give or take an epoch), large ground sloths inhabited South and North America. These were probably hunted to extinction by our ancenstors, who realized too late that it’s kind of lame to hunt animals that move five feet per minute.*
Indeed, recent fossil evidence suggests that prehistoric man often found himself having this conversation with prehistoric woman:
‘Did you have a good day hunting, honey?’
‘Yeah. I killed like eighty ground sloths.’
‘Oh good for you. That’s really neat.’
‘What’s that supposed to mean?’
‘What’s what supposed to mean?’
‘Saying that killing ground sloths is “neat.”‘
‘I mean I’m happy for you. Good for you.’
‘You think it’s easy to kill these ground sloths?’
‘Not at all! I’m saying good for you for sticking with something that barely moves. It shows you’ve got good sense.’
‘Oh, would you be happier if I went after saber-toothed tigers?’
‘I’m not saying that!’
‘Fine! I’ll go try to kill a saber-toothed tiger tomorrow!’
‘Honey, that’s not what I mean-”
‘I know what you mean!’
‘Fine, go get yourself eaten by a saber-toothed tiger!’
‘Can you help me get these sloths inside the cave? They’re pretty heavy.’
In a nutshell, that’s pretty much why sloths live in trees.
This ground sloth realized far too late that climbing this tree was a good idea.
The sloths that survive today, they are, to put it plainly, awesome. They are slow-living, slow-breathing reminders that it’s better to work smarter than harder. Or to not work at all. Or to barely move anywhere, ever. Whatever you do, don’t even bother getting wound up about stuff. Take your time. Think. Breathe. Barely move. Everything’s cool.
If the moral of the story of the tortoise and the hare is that ‘slow and steady wins the race,’ the moral of the story of the sloth is that the only race is the one against having to be in races.
Just how slow are sloths? Slow enough to be the only animal named after a Deadly Sin.** Perhaps this was done originally to shame the sloth into getting a move on, but it’s unlikely we’ll ever know for sure (the wireless router is down). What is certain is that the word sloth dates from the Middle English slouthe, meaning ‘slow’ or ‘not fast.’
From the ground up, literally everything about sloths is slow. It’s as though they really want to rub it in our faces about how chilled out they are. For instance, most of what they eat are leaves, and sloths have very slow stomachs with multiple compartments that slowly break down cellulose. Indeed, towards that end sloths get symbiotic bacteria to do much of the work for them, like your manager who gets you to pull all-nighters to finish the Greevy presentation and then takes all the credit in the meeting. On a given day (and let’s just assume that for a sloth, most days are about the same) as much as two-thirds of a sloth’s weight is its stomach, and the digestive process can take a month or more to complete.
Sloths have a novelty-slow metabolism and keep their body temperatures lower than would otherwise be advisable. They also have very little muscle compared to similarly-sized animals, but you don’t need muscles when you don’t move. Checkmate.
Indeed, sloths are so unapologetically slow that their hair is often covered with a coat of blue-green algae during the rainy season. And while this might seem to most people to be a embarrassing protozoan reminder of a sloth’s sloth, it actually works out in their favor: the algae provides camouflage. Yet again, the sloth makes a powerful case for not trying.
Can you see me? I couldn’t care less.
And their case is bolstered by success. Sloths can account for as much as two-thirds of the mammalian biomass in their range. Just like your brother accounts for two-thirds of the mammalian biomass in your parents’ basement. Maybe he’s been on to something all along.
You gotta hand it to sloths: they get it done. And in the case of sloths, ‘it’ is nothing. Which is how sloths like it.
In short, sloths earn respect in their stubborn refusal to get caught up in the rat race of life. They have no interest in moving, and when they have to, they protest by moving as slowly as possible.
My life with leaves.
Most importantly, the success of the sloth gives us permission to feel better about our own gluttony and envy. In other words, if fully embracing their worst instincts works so well for sloths, then why not for us?
GRADE: A (for everything but effort)
* Ground sloths were actually massive, about the size of a modern bull elephant, and had massive claws. Hats off to anyone who wanted to go after them.
**A pride of lions doesn’t count. Nor does a greed of tigers.