Jennifer-Lee Mason in front of the sloth exhibit in Extreme Mammals.
You can see this EXTREMELY SLOTHFUL mammal in the Extreme Mammals exhibition at the museum until November 2011. Image: Andrea McKay © Canadian Museum of Nature

Four Canadian Museum of Nature staff members have each adopted a favourite extreme mammal. Follow them in this blog to see what’s so special about these awesome creatures. You’ll be certain to have all the cool and extreme info on these mammals when you search for them during your next visit!

It is possible that my affinity for sloths is due to their laid-back, lackadaisical, languid approach to life. So I was very excited to see them as part of the Extreme Mammals exhibition, currently showing at the Canadian Museum of Nature. Sloths are so EXTREMELY slothful! Maybe it’s the stark contrast to my hectic life that makes me take notice. Sloths have adapted many traits which allow them to lounge around in the trees all day. Now, who doesn’t envy that… at least once in a while?

Because sloths spend most of their lives hanging from trees, with their arms and legs above their body, their fur grows from their stomach towards their back—away from their extremities. This is opposite to other mammals. This facilitates water runoff, which is of great benefit to animals living in the rainforest.

A sloth moves in a tree, hanging from a branch by all fours.
A sloth moves in a tree. Image: © Himagine

The fur is also host to a slew of symbiotic organisms—ranging from cyanobacteria (blue-green algae) to various insects that love to feast on cyanobacteria. The algae actually give the sloth’s fur a greenish hue—now that’s a stylish animal! The colour of the fur, combined with the downward drape allows sloths to easily blend in with their surroundings and be undetectable to predators.

The cover of "Slowly, Slowly, Slowly," Said the Sloth.
There is a great children's book by author Eric Carle called "Slowly, Slowly, Slowly," Said the Sloth, in which various beautiful rainforest creatures accuse a sloth of being slow, lazy and boring. The sloth argues instead that he is placid, unflappable and stoic.

Sloths have adapted an extremely slow metabolism, which they fuel almost exclusively with cecropia leaves. Most leaf-eating mammals need to eat almost constantly, which I can attest to: I am a vegan and I eat about 12 times a day.

Instead, sloths have evolved to utilize very little energy: they sleep about 15 to 18 hours a day (which is practically comatose compared to my six hours a night) and when they are awake, they move extremely slowly (0.24 km/h). Can you imagine taking an hour to travel just over two city blocks?

Alright… so let me summarize: sloths lounge around, sleeping in the rainforest canopy all day, eating leaves, and generally being green. Sure, the menu options might get a little boring, but otherwise, that sounds like a fabulous vacation to me!

Extreme Mammals is organized by the American Museum of Natural History, New York, USA, in collaboration with the Canadian Museum of Nature, Ottawa, the California Academy of Sciences, San Francisco, USA and the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, USA.