Consider the Sloth

Did You Know…?

  • …that fossil remains have been found of ground sloths larger than our modern elephant?
  • …that the three-toed sloth has a diet of nothing but leaves?
  • …that sloths do not drink, though their diet is very difficult to digest?
  • …that the stomach of the sloth is always stuffed with leaves?
  • …that 30% of their body weight is the contents of the stomach?
  • …that though warm-blooded, the body temperature is similar to reptiles in that it is not controlled very well?
  • …that the body temperature drops to 68° F when it is most active?
  • …that the hair changes color as the rainfall increases or decreases?
  • …that if a sloth lived 40 years, it would only be conscious for 10 years?
  • …that in time value, only 4 years of the sloth’s 40 are used for activity of any kind?
  • …that they spend almost all their lives hanging upside-down from tree branches?
  • …that their hair grows from the stomach side toward the back, opposite to other animals?
  • …that they can withstand serious injury and strong poisons?

Consider the Sloth

The Bible uses different creatures of the animal kingdom as teaching media. For example, “Go unto the ant, O slothful one, see her ways and be wise” (Prov. 6:6 Young’s Literal Translation)

The sloth (pronounced SLOW-th) was perhaps one of these creatures designed for our learning. Though not mentioned in the Bible in the original languages, its habits were certainly observed long ago. We even have in our language a word derived from the habits of this creature: “slothful.” And because of our perception of this indolent creature as “sluggish; lazy; indolent,” this word is in several Bible translations. No one wants to be thought of as slothful.

We will look at this creature to be certain we aren’t taking on any of its ugly traits. But first, let’s look at the sloth from the Designer’s point of view. For—can you believe it!— even the sloth is a masterpiece of design.

If you think of sloths as being fairly small, hairy creatures hanging around in trees, you may be surprised to know that’s not how it has always been. Those who study fossil remains tell us that long ago there were sloths larger than our modern elephant. (That gets your attention, doesn’t it!) The Megatherium Americanum sloth was 20 feet long. Its nearest rival was more than 13 feet long and 5 feet high. These South American residents, of about 500,000 years ago, were ground sloths. How far back the modern-day tree sloths date is unknown. We are told that there are no fossil remains. (But my guess is that they aren’t recent arrivals.)

Tree sloths are restricted to forests from northern Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil, to Southeastern Honduras. They are found only in dense tropical rain forests. Two tree-dwelling sloths are very similar. One has two claws on each of the forefeet and eats a variety of berries, fruits, stems, leaves and some prey, while the other has three claws on each front foot and eats only cecropia leaves. In this article we will be looking at the three-clawed sloth.

These sloths, in spite of being strictly leaf-eaters, have teeth designed for eating insects, so it is said, not abrasive leaves. They don’t even have enamel (the tough outer shell that protects teeth from wear and prolongs their life) on their teeth! Nor do they have incisors in the front for the purpose of biting off leaves. Seems this creature was just not meant to do what it does.

Did the Designer not know what He was doing? Don’t judge too quickly. He is far wiser than we!

The Designer equipped the sloth with tough, hard lips that can strip the leaves right off the stem-no effort at all. And the teeth that seem not to be “designed for this job”? Even without enamel they last a lifetime (something like 30 to 40 years).

How do their teeth last so long? They grow continuously, at just the right growth rate. And instead of enamel they have a hard cement covering, so that as fast as they are wearing down they are growing. Talk about precision engineering! Is there, maybe, a built-in tooth monitor? (Could be we haven’t figured this one out yet!)

A Diet of Nothing but Leaves

Is it a mistake to design a creature that eats nothing but leaves-and does not even drink water? The sloth gets all the water it needs from the leaves it eats and from rain droplets. Wouldn’t this give just about anyone a stomachache? Not the sloth. (He apparently never has a stomachache-at least he never has a problem sleeping, which seems to be what he enjoys doing most. More on that later.)

The wise Designer gave the sloth a multi-chambered stomach to handle the job. And a big job it is! The sloth’s stomach holds lots of cecropia tree leaves, equal to about 30% of its body’s weight. And it is stuffed all the time. Why so many leaves? Because it takes a long time to digest them and get the nourishment needed. The sloth’s salad of cecropia leaves steeps in its stomach for up to a week before the process is completed!

Body Temperature

The sloth’s body temperature, not closely controlled, normally ranges from 82.4° F. to 95° F. Though the heavy coat of fur provides excellent insulation against heat loss, its body temperature still drops to nearly the surrounding temperature at night, when it is most active. It may drop to as low as 68° F, in which case it becomes torpid (loses all sensation and movement).

Defense From Predators

While slowness would not help on the ground, where they spend very little time, it does help in the trees. In fact, the sloths’ inactivity, or barely moving, contributes greatly to their camouflage from nocturnal enemies. Also to their advantage is their hair, which is yellowish to brownish. The hair, being covered with algae and mold which flourishes in the tropics, is an additional advantage, since the algae and mold give the sloth a greenish cast, especially during the rainy season. During the dryer season it loses some of the greenish color, blending better with dry leaves. The sleeping posture-hanging from a branch with feet bunched together and head tucked into the chest-aid in camouflage. It looks much like a bunch of dead leaves, a termite’s nest or limb stump! In the face of danger it remains still, making it very difficult to spot.

It is claimed that sloths have very poor hearing. But this may be another case of misunderstanding. While scientists were experimenting with the sloth, one sloth broke a glass beaker in the laboratory. When the glass was being cleaned up, the sloth, hearing the rattle of broken glass, immediately came to life, ready to fight. However, it showed no response to a gun fired only a few inches from its head (demonstrated in a video published by Moody Institute). Is the sloth’s hearing poor, or does it respond only to whatever it perceives as a threat?

If molested, the sloth bites savagely and strikes out furiously with its sharp claws. It can tolerate severe injuries and strong poisons. It also has thick skin, which is difficult to penetrate. Maybe this explains why a host of parasites, living in its hair, do not cause a problem.

Special Design

Sloths live in an upside down world. Even their organs (liver, stomach, spleen and pancreas) are in different positions than those of other animals. Accommodating this life of hanging upside down, even the hair grows in reverse, from the stomach side toward the back. This helps to shed rainwater. The Creator paid special attention to every detail.

Habits of the Sloth

Sloths spend up to 18 hours daily just sleeping. They spend only about 10% of their time barely moving. At top speed they can cover a mile in four hours-if they can stay awake that long. Trying to move on the ground they are nearly helpless. They just fall over unless they can grasp something to pull on and drag themselves along. While they cannot walk and can barely move in their natural habitat, they are excellent swimmers.

Sloths never take a bath, and don’t even bother with grooming. Can you imagine nearly 40 years of life like this? Not only is their hair covered with algae, but the algae and mold is home for a variety of mites, caterpillars, moths and beetles which feed on the algae. Is it any wonder the sloth lives alone?

The sloth—doing what he does best (sleeping)
Life Applications for Us

Are You SLOW… or SLOTH-ful?

There is an important difference between being slow and slothful. Some of us are slow by nature, and all of us are human and tire out, become ill and eventually slow with age. But the slothful person gets very little accomplished on a regular routine and does not care, though he or she might be capable of far more.

Any Parasites?

We have been commanded to love the Lord with all we have. This requires energy and efficiency. It can’t be done when our attention is divided between God and the cares of this world. Our sins, especially those we hold onto without regard to what they are doing to us, are like parasites that keep us drained of spiritual vigor.

What parasites do we allow? Are we careful to apply the cleansing Word of God every day? Or are we slothful, not concerned with the parasites of sin?

Are You Right Side Up?

The sloth lives in an upside-down world. Isn’t this how we are when we place ourselves and our interests above God? Don’t we have everything upside down?

The sloth has become so accustomed to its upside-down world that it just cannot function in a world right side up!

Can we expect, after living in an upside-down world, to be able to stand before Christ when He returns as Judge? Like the sloth, which is helpless, we will be helpless before Him. Will He pity us if we have been slothful in our obedience?

How is Your Vision?

The sloth has color vision, a gift many animals do not have, yet, it is said that it cannot see very well. Is our vision impaired when it comes to seeing the life of Christ, our perfect example, and following Him?

Do You Pay Attention to Warnings?

The sloth seems to lack a sense of real danger. Are we like the sloth, which ignores the danger of gunfire, yet fears the rattle of broken glass? Our sins, unrepented of, will one day prove as deadly as gunshot. Yet the spiritually slothful pay no attention.

Are You Spiritually Unkempt?

Our sins, in God’s eyes, make us just as unkempt as the sloth, which never grooms or takes a bath. There is only one way to cleanse ourselves, and that is to skillfully apply the Word of God which cleanses the alert God-fearing man or woman from all filthiness. ”Your filth will be washed away, and you will no longer worship idols. And I will give you a new heart with new and right desires, and I will put a new spirit in you. I will take out your stony heart of sin and give you a new, obedient heart” (Ezek 36:25-26 NLT).

“Without Natural Affection”

Normally, being slothful means “disinclined to activity” (Webster). Can this include a lack of natural affection? The newborn sloth, about 10 inches long and weighing about 12 ounces, clings to the mother until about 5 weeks old. While the mother is never intentionally separated from the infant, if it takes a fall, the mother will completely ignore its grief-stricken distress calls, as it lies helpless on the ground futilely struggling for life. If they survive to be about six months old, the mother will abandon the youngster for another foraging area and never miss her baby.

The Apostle Paul warned of a people who would be “without natural affection,… unmerciful” (Rom. 1:31), and advised Timothy (and us) to stay away from such. We see child abandonment and uncaring attitudes very frequently today. Isn’t this slothfulness?

In Conclusion

Are we too hard on the sloth? Perhaps, when we think about the sloth’s environment and needed camouflage, it has good reasons for its slothfulness.

First, it was designed for tree-life for which it is very well adapted. Nor can we find fault with its slow movements. If its body temperature was raised only a few degrees, it would increase its speed by 50%.

Then, too, the sloth conserves its energy for digestion—extracting nourishment from all those leaves must require much more energy than digesting a tender steak! Eat a big meal and go sit down and see if you don’t get drowsy. No doubt about it—the sloth has one big, continuous meal to digest!

And it is designed for camouflage, including its slow, deliberate, hand-over-hand-motion as it goes about feeding.

Is the sloth a strange, lazy creature? The Creator designed it this way. Time has shown the wisdom in the design, as it still survives.

But we humans have no excuse for our slothfulness. God has equipped us to be active workers for Him. Our work, as Paul described it, is to qualify for the prize of eternal life, and this means we must run! “Run in such a way that you may win” (1 Cor. 9:24 NASB). The race is on, so let’s be running. Energetically!

Sources of Scientific Data in this Article:

Encyclopedia Britannica CD 99
“Sloth,” Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia 2000
World Book Encyclopedia