Why All The Hanging Around?

Scientists solve the mystery of how sloths have adapted to a life spent upside down

Sloths may seem lazy but scientists have found that their upside down stance is necessary for survival.

Sloths may seem lazy but scientists have found that their upside down stance is necessary for survival. Image by Henry Alien

Reported to sleep 15 to 20 hours every day, deep in the Central and South American jungles, there is an animal which makes the sedentary reputation of students pale in comparison.

As the slowest mammal in world, the sloth quite rightly shares its name with one of the seven deadly sins. So little in fact does this creature move, that its fur coat can facilitate the growth of camouflaging algae.Far from laziness, this sluggishness which is characteristic of the sloth is necessitous owing to their low –energy diet and extremely slow digestion rate. They will only leave the tree to empty their bowels once a week.

The fact that the sloth spends up to 90% of their time hanging upside down in trees has up to now been inexplicable to researchers. The effort required to breathe in that position, with up to a third of the animal’s body weight stored as one or other form of excrement pressing down upon the lungs, would be expected to be enormous.

The mystery of how sloths manage to survive given this seemingly impossible expenditure of energy has finally been solved by a team at Swansea University. It transpires that the sloth has a number of internal adhesions, which act as an anchor for the stomach and bowels, reducing the amount of energy used when hanging upside down by between 7 and 13%. The fact that sloths can remain in the trees in this way without getting tired is imperative to their survival. Sadly, these enigmatic creatures are currently endangered owing to deforestation.

It is thought that these useful adhesions may limit the movement of the sloth around the midsection. This is not a problem given the lifestyle that the sloth leads, but it is probably the reason more animals haven’t developed with such a seemingly handy feature. Given our lack of anchoring adhesions, it would be ill-advised to try emulating the sloth at home.

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