What do sloths give to humanity?
To measure a species only by the benefit it brings to human civilization is to take a very narrow view of the magnificence of life on Earth. Every organism has an important role to play in its own ecosystem, and if we are humble enough to receive their gifts, sloths have so much to give us.
In these unprecedented times–when our very existence is vulnerable to the effects of climate change and global warming–it is imperative to understand that nature is not at our service. It is time to outgrow our anthropocentric mentality.
As we approach this season of generosity and gratitude, let’s take a moment to appreciate what the world’s slowest mammal has given to us. It’s more than you might think!
1 – Sloths could hold the cure to some human diseases
In 2014, an in-depth analysis of the algae growing on sloth hair discovered that A) sloths have an entire ecosystem in their fur, and B) it serves a much greater purpose than mere camouflage! Substances produced by the algae protect against a number of diseases, including some not well studied by science, as well as a specific kind of breast cancer.
This very important piece of research has been taken out of context and exaggerated as it’s spread around the internet, so don’t believe everything you read. In the last 40 years, an estimated 50% of all new medical drugs were discovered from natural sources—it’s not surprising that we’re getting such great results from novel research in sloths!
2 – Sloths are an umbrella species, protecting all wildlife—and a lot of people
To save sloths, we must first save their ecosystem, and when we do, we help every other species that depends upon it.
It all starts with the trees. Trees are the giant substrates of the rainforest ecosystem, and these trees need to be connected to one another so that wildlife can safely move among them. Many rainforest animals are arboreal—meaning they live their lives in the treetops—and sloths, in particular, depend on a connected canopy for survival.
A healthy rainforest is one where trees are not isolated islands in a sea of urban sprawl, but a continuous world of leafy green biodiversity. When the canopy-dwelling creatures can stay in the canopy, humans benefit from fewer zoonotic diseases, improved environmental stability, improved infrastructure (because wildlife isn’t using the power lines as highways), and fewer traffic accidents.
Finally, there are many indigenous communities whose culture, customs, and identity are inextricably intertwined with the natural world. When we save sloths, we are literally saving the world, for everybody!
3 – Sloths give us an antidote to haste and hurry
We have many sayings, stories, and fables about how “slow and steady wins the race”, but in the rat race of our modern world, these lessons are easily forgotten. Sloths have been around for millions of years, proving that you don’t have to outrun life in order to survive it!
Costa Rica’s moto is “Pura Vida”, which means “pure life”. It is a greeting, a goodbye, a synonym for “oh well, stuff happens”, and sometimes a congratulation. Sloths epitomize “Pura Vida”. As the pace and stress of the world continue to accelerate, it becomes not just pleasant, but vital to take a step back and reassess our values.
We must take time to appreciate the beauty that grows outside of the rat race, contemplate our decisions made in haste, and learn to prioritize mental and emotional health. If we are willing to listen to their wisdom, sloths can teach us how to calm down, relax, and take it easy. After all, sometimes “slowly” is the fastest way to get to where you want to be. Pura Vida!
4- Sloths make us laugh
There are probably more important things in the world than a cute picture of a baby sloth sticking its tongue out at us… but right now it’s a bit hard to think of what those things might be. Sloths’ popularity has skyrocketed over the last decade–for the very good reason that they are perfectly adorable—and this can only be a good thing.
We all need to laugh more, share more, and reflect on our own absurdity. Nothing does this better than the enigmatic smile of a sloth meme in your inbox! Really, any animal that can show us how to take ourselves a bit less seriously is doing us a very great service.
5 – Sloths give us mystery
Many common, seemingly simple questions about sloths have the same answer – nobody knows. How long do they live? How long are they pregnant for? Exactly how many species are there, anyway?
Even stranger are the things we do know, like that sloths are three times stronger than humans, they carry around their very own ecosystem on their backs, and they can survive falls from heights that would kill most other mammals.
The best thing about scientific discoveries are not just the answers that we discover, but the questions that those answers spawn. The more we know the more there is to wonder about; ultimately it is the endless curiosity that drives us, the wonder that enthralls us, and the mystery that gives us purpose.
6 – Sloths evolved the avocados
We here at Team Sloth are hardcore avocado fans – smashed on toast, guacamolied onto chips, sliced in a burrito, fetched by our dogs when they fall off trees in our yard… really. We’re not making that one up. Dogs, after all, like to fetch things, and the jungle would eat any newspapers foolish enough to be tossed into our yard, so the dog retrieves avocados.
Those same fruits rain down on our tin roofs like the Wrath of Armageddon at 3:30 in the morning, so it’s really only fair that we get a meal out of the deal.
For both our interrupted sleep and our tasty new-age toast, we have sloths to thank. Specifically, the ancient ground sloth, Megatherium.
Thousands of years ago when giant ground sloths roamed the Western Hemisphere, they were the only herbivores big enough to eat the avocados and (and their equally giant seeds). The huge seeds passed through their digestive systems and were dispersed all over the Americas, where the avocado eventually outlived the giant sloths that spawned them.
Thank you, Megatherium! Rest in peace! We’ll take good care of the guacamole, we promise.
If you’re feeling particularly grateful to sloths and want to learn more about how to keep up this mutually beneficial relationship, you can donate here.
Urban Sloth Project Assistant