These past few weeks have been the sloth selfie 15 minutes of fame. It all started with this sloth selfie, taken by tour guide Marcelo Sueth in Brazil:
You’ve undoubtedly seen it all over the place. Whether it be facebook, twitter, your email inbox, local papers, Marcelo’s sloth selfie has received press beyond anything he ever imagined. Good show man!
Deiber Chacon, from Costa Rica, also published a well circulated sloth selfie:
And many other people are now getting on the “sloth selfie train” all over the world. Sloths are abundant in tropical areas, many have found a home in local parks within cities or just outside them, and people are quick to do anything that might seem cool on the internet, even if it’s not the best idea.
A quick primer on sloths
Sloths are mammals related to anteaters, that live in the tropics mainly in south and central america. They’re often called “sloth bears” in english, even though a sloth bear is a completely different species, directly related to the larger american bears. In spanish (the language most spoken where sloths live) they’re simply called “perezoso” (“lazy”, directly translated).
Sloths are usually classified by the number of fingers (or more appropriately, toes) they have on their legs. There’s two toed sloths and three toed sloths, each has its own unique characteristics and habitat. They’re furry, with colors ranging from blacks to browns, all the way to silver grey. Their fur tends to be composed of long, thick hairs, and up close they’re not as fluffy as they seem from far away.
Living in the trees, sloths have a diet that consists mainly of leaves and foliage. They hang from the trees all day, looking for larger leaves and tender stalks that they can eat. Some varieties of sloths have been known to eat insects and lizards, but this is regarded as the exception and not the rule.
Because they eat only foliage, sloths have an energy problem! You’d never guess, right? Everyone’s always told you salad is good food… but when it comes to sloths, their diet of leaves and stalks, combined with their preference for climbing, makes for a pretty crumby energy balance. So to stay healthy, they’ve adapted to move very slowly, and conserve the maximum amount of energy possible.
Are sloths endangered?
Most types of sloths are not endangered, however there’s a couple of varieties that are. The pigmy three toed sloth from Panama is classified as an endangered species. Most of its habitat on Isla Escudo de Veraguas in Panama has been destroyed, and an increasing number of predators are bringing this species of sloth to critically endangered levels.
Their preference of forests, of course, makes the sloths candidates for endangerement in the future if our cities keep growing at the alarming rate they currently have. Plus, there’s the issue of some sloths taking up residence in cities, which brings about harmful changes in their diets and conflicts with humans. So we have to be careful, and realize there’s one more critter out there that’s affected by our tendency to colonize forests without thinking twice.
What other stuff should we know about sloths and the sloth selfie?
Here’s the part that most people don’t know: sloth selfies are not the best idea someone could have. Sure, they’re fun to look at, but all the implications of the sloth selfie make this trend one of the least recommended, in my opinion.
Sloths are wildlife, they’re not domesticated animals. They’re as wild and free as any other animal you might find out there. And that makes for some unusual behavior around humans, and can even make them dangerous.
Most sloths carry a wide variety of “guests” with them. Since they move slowly and sometimes not at all, many insects and even plants take residence in their fur. They can carry moths, beetles, insects, roaches and even fungi and algae. Algae is one of the more surprising residents of a sloth’s fur, some varieties have adapted to live on the sloth and actually help it to keep healthy. But for the most part, a sloth is not exactly something you’d want to be next to, or touch for that matter.
The sloth selfie trend has brought about the incorrect idea that sloths are friendly, people loving creatures, and love to interact with visitors to their habitat. Actually, no. They might move slowly, they might look fun, but they’re not people-loving creatures. Sloths prefer to keep to themselves and their slow-going routines, and people hanging around nearby don’t make them happy.
Most sloths are able to move quite rapidly if they feel threatened, much more rapidly than people expect. And some varieties of sloths are actually aggressive, and will bite and scratch if bothered.
All this makes the sloth selfie, a bad idea. Sloths are fine the way they are, hanging around in the trees eating leaves. They don’t need people poking selfie sticks around them. You might know what a camera is, but a sloth most certainly won’t. They might feel threatened by your camera near them, and try to run or attack it. And as you can probably imagine, for a 10 kg sloth hanging up in the air, it’s not a good idea to try to attack or run from a little box on a stick a few feet away. Your sloth selfie project might even end up causing the sloth to fall and injure itself.
And of course don’t even get me started on all those that see the pictures and say “how cool would it be to have one of those as a pet!”. Don’t go there. Sloths are not pets, and they don’t make good pets. For starters they can’t live outside the tropics: if someone says they can “import” a pet sloth for you, it’s either a scam, or they have absolutely no idea what they’re doing. Put a sloth in a colder or dryer climate than it’s accustomed to living in, and it’s done.
Sloths also need a huge amount of space to live in, since they like to climb and eat lots of leaves. And the stuff they carry in their fur, insects and such, also has a very specific habitat and won’t be there if you move them to another place.
And, as I already mentioned, a sloth probably won’t be too happy to hang around with you and be your pet. You’ll probably receive quite a few good scratches, bites and infections along the way. So don’t even think of going there.
If you’re curious about sloths, ask your local zoo if they keep them, or even better, tour one of their tropical habitats to view them in real life! Costa Rica is a fantastic option for touring, and there’s even entire parks and rescue centers devoted to sloths that you can spend the day in. You can view them safely, with a guide to explain what they do, and take home plenty of photos to keep (no selfies though!).
So, in closing, thanks to Marcelo and Deiber for putting sloths on the world map and giving them their much needed 15 minutes of fame!
Now that everyone knows about these neat creatures, let’s keep it safe, and keep those selfie sticks far away from the sloths.