Ok so I love sloths. I’m not even going to try to hide that fact. The more I’ve been reading about them and writing about them, the more I love them. So sloths are cute! But are sloths smart, and if they are, how is this the case?
It was something I just had to know, so looked into ways that they could possibly be intelligent!
So are sloths smart? Yes sloths are smart. They have survived for over 10,000 years and outlived extinct ground sloths by adapting to life in the trees. They can hide from predators by staying still for a long time and camouflaging, growing algae on their fur, and barely going to the toilet ever!
That can’t be it right? The most simple answer to a seemingly complex question! I’ve broken it down for you below and gone into a lot more detail about exactly why I believe sloths are smart animals. They can even help to cure diseases! Read on to find out more about this and for some intelligent sloth facts!
Are Sloths Smart?
This is a bit of a tricky question. First off, how exactly do you measure an animal’s intelligence? I guess they do this in laboratories with rats and other animals too. But how exactly do you do this with an animal that spends almost all of it’s time in the trees?
Instead we have to look at the sloth’s behaviour, and how they have adapted over time.
Are sloths intelligent creatures then? Well I guess this depends on what you are looking for in terms of intelligence. Can they complete a complex maths equation? No they cannot. Do they need to be able to do this? No they do not.
So what do sloths need to be able to do? Survive! They need to be able to survive. They are not quick. They are not fierce. They are not going to fight off deadly sloth predators.
So if they have none of that going for them. Speed, fierceness, and the ability to fight, then they need to be intelligent right? In their own way they are, and this is exactly how they survive!
This leads us back to the questions of are sloths smart, and what exactly do they have going for them that does make them intelligent? I’ve compiled a list of sloth facts below that helps us in our search for these answers.
So let’s dive in below and have a look at exactly how sloths have survived for so long, which in turn will help us to answer the question are sloths smart!
Does How Long Sloth’s Have Lived For Show they Are Smart?
The first thing I thought of when I was looking at how intelligent sloths are, is how long they have survived for. Like I said above, it’s not because they are quick or strong, although they do possess strength in their own way!
They are able to hang upside down from trees for an incredibly long period of time. This does require strength. Now a sloth’s muscle mass is quite poor in relation to other animals of roughly the same size.
A sloth has on average 30 percent less muscle mass than most of these other animals. But their arms are made up of mostly slow-twitch fibres. What this means for the sloth is that their muscles are able to work at a high strength level for a long period of time without taking up too much energy.
So in answering the question are sloths smart, surely one of the main indicators that they are is how long they have been around for.
Now this post is talking about sloths in general. There are actually 6 different types of sloths, split across two genera or families. I’m not going to go into detail about them all. If you want to read more about the different sloths species, you can read this post.
These sloths are split across two families or genera. These are the two-toed and the three-toed sloths. These sloths have many similarities, and many differences too. What I find most interesting about them is that they have evolved quite separately, and although both genera of sloths are from the same order in the animal kingdom, they are not closely related.
Thousands of years ago there were a whole host of other types of sloths, collectively known as ‘ground sloths‘. Why were they called this? Obviously due to the fact that rather than living in trees, they lived on the ground.
The last of these ground sloths to survive were the Caribbean ground sloths, thought to have last been seen alive in around 1500 BCE. The ground sloths in North and South America are thought to have died out long before this. Possibly 10,000 years or so earlier!
So why did these ground sloths become extinct? Most people believe it was largely due to them being hunted by humans. Although faster and more agile than the sloths we have today, they were still not able to hold their own when being hunted by groups of humans, and eventually became extinct.
The two-toed sloth is much more closely related to the ground sloth than the three-toed sloth. To adapt and survive it has taken to a life solely in the trees. This way it avoids being hunted by humans, and can stay safe from other predators too.
So yes perhaps sloths don’t have the mental agility of some animals. But they are smart enough to survive for tens of thousands of years where their ancestors could not. I believe this is the first and most important answer to the question of are sloths smart.
Much of the rest of this post, and the reasons I think sloths are intelligent, is closely related to this idea of being able to survive!
Does A Sloth’s Choice Of Home Make It Smart?
Like I said above, most of my reasons for thinking sloths are smart are closely related. So it is with their choice of home. Sloths are arboreal. They choose to spend their time living solely in trees. This has a great many benefits to sloths, and is one of the major ways sloths have adapted to the rainforests.
Unlike the ground sloths, choosing to live in the trees takes the extant sloths away from a great many of the predators that will prey on them.
This is a smart move on the part of the sloth. Many of the big cats, like jaguars, will find it hard to prey on sloths when they are hanging so high up in the canopies of the rainforests. Margays can climb trees pretty well, and can catch a sloth if it is climbing down, but even it will find it hard to climb all of the way up to the level sloths live at.
Is A Sloth’s Diet A Smart Choice?
The sloth’s choice of home leads us on nicely to the next answer to the question of are sloths smart. I believe the sloth’s diet is a smart choice which is closely related to where it lives and how it stays alive!
So as we know, sloths live in trees. They spend pretty much their whole lives there. As they can live entirely on the leaves in these trees, there is very little need to leave them.
Whilst three-toed sloths are entirely herbivorous, being able to survive on the leaves of trees alone, two-toed sloths are classed as omnivorous. They can survive on the leaves of trees, but can also take protein from small insects and other things that they find. Probably another nod to their ancestors, the ground sloths.
The leaves in the trees of the rainforest are covered with toxins, making it difficult for many animals to eat. Sloths are so smart that they have stomachs that are split into four chambers, full of bacteria that can break down the toxins in these leaves.
It can take a long time for them to digest these leaves, which leads us on to our next intelligent sloth fact!
Does Not Going To The Toilet Much Make A Sloth Intelligent?
Ok so normally I would think you were mad for asking this question. On the surface it does seem like a crazy one. But then when I looked into sloths, it seems like people are almost obsessed with their toilet habits. So many posts have been written about this online.
So what’s the deal here? Well sloths only need to go to the toilet once every seven to ten days. Big deal right? Wrong!
Imagine you are one of the slowest creatures on the planet. Then imagine you live miles up in the canopies of the rainforest. You can’t protect yourself well from predators in the traditional sense. Climbing down and up will take ages, and you are vulnerable on the ground.
What’s the smart thing to do? Hold it in of course. That’s exactly what sloths do! I’m a teacher during the day, and I equate it to not going to the toilet while the kids are in class due to the fact that I may not have a classroom left when I get back!
Due to the fact that the sloth’s metabolism is so slow, and it can take them between 30 and 50 days to digest leaves, they only really need to go to the bathroom once every seven to ten days. This is actually one of the many ways that sloths can protect themselves from predators, and a definite answer to the question are sloths smart.
Are Sloths Intelligent Enough To Control Their Metabolism?
So as I have already said, a sloth’s metabolism is already incredibly slow. So slow that it can take longer than a month to digest food. Did you know though, that sloths are actually in control of this?
A sloth can control it’s metabolism, slowing it down so far that their heart rate is one third of it’s normal resting rate! This is so smart. In doing this, a sloth can actually hold it’s breath for up to 40 minutes.
Now sloths are not great on the ground. They can’t move quickly, which we will look at in some more detail below. Sometimes they need to move between areas of the rainforest, and on land this will take them forever.
But sloths are actually pretty good swimmers. They can move about three times faster in the water than they can on land. One of the things that helps them with this is that ability to be able to hold their breath for extended periods of time. So are sloths smart in being able to slow down their metabolism like this? For sure I think they are!
Is Slowness An Intelligent Sloth Behavior?
OK so let’s address the elephant in the room here. Sloths are slow. So, so slow. They can only move on the ground at a speed of 4 metres per minute, and can only push this to 4.5 metres per minute if they are being chased and about to be eaten!
Is this slowness a real problem though, or is it an adaptive trait that has helped them to survive, and does it help us in understanding the question are sloths smart?
At first glance sure staying still seems like the easy way out. Just hang around all day and don’t do much. We’d all love to do that sometimes right? The smartest thing I find about sloths is how interrelated all of their behaviors are.
They have slow metabolisms. They stay in trees all day and eat only leaves. This diet and metabolism means they can’t move very fast.
However, this slowness, or much of the time stillness, is something that helps sloths to stay safe. It is one of the reasons they have lasted as long as they have up in the trees.
Even for eagles like the harpy eagle, it can be almost impossible to see a sloth when it is hanging perfectly still up in the trees. It also leads us to our next intelligent sloth fact, which is about how exactly they are camouflaged.
Does A Sloth’s Ability To Camouflage Make It Smart?
You’ve heard of the ‘sloth moth‘ right? So had I, but if I’m honest I’m not sure if I actually thought it was a real thing. It is though. Sloths move so slowly that they actually have algae growing on their fur. This can make a sloth appear green in color, and provides a huge amount of protection for the sloth.
Due to the green algae growing on most of their fur, they blend in so well with the trees that they live in that they can often be near impossible to spot. Not only this, but the sloth’s fur can play host to a vast array of different creatures, including sloth moths, beetles, and different kinds of flies.
This is just one of the many ways that sloths help the environment in which they live. As you will see below, the algae and creatures living in the fur are helpful in another way too.
Are Sloths As Smart As Doctors?
Maybe not, but certain aspects of their behaviors do mean that the medical world can be provided with some benefits. I have found several studies online that talk about the possible health benefits gained from the fungus in the sloth’s fur, and from the creatures found in there too.
There are fungal strains in the fur of sloths that have been fond to protect against parasites that carry malaria. Scientists are also studying some of the chemicals found in a sloth’s fur in the hope that it could be used to fight diseases such as breast cancer.
Are sloths smart enough to cure diseases? Of course not. Not on their own. But their choice of behaviors certainly gives rise to this, and so I think it does make them smart creatures!
So in summary, are sloths smart? Not in the conventional sense, and in this respect it’s maybe a trick question. They are never going to solve mathematical equations, and in many respects lack the problem solving abilities of many other animals.
However, they are smart enough to survive for tens of thousands of years, when their ancestors could not.
They have done this by adapting their behaviors. By moving to the trees, learning to stay still and eating only the things they find there. So not conventionally intelligent, but definitely smart enough to survive where other sloths and rainforest animals have not.
I hope the information in this article was helpful. If you have any questions or would like to add anything, then please leave a comment below.