Sloths: Facts, Characteristics, Behavior, Diet, More

The sloth (Folivora) is a member of the order Pilosa and the suborder Folivora, a group of mammals known for their tree-climbing ability.

This animal itself is often associated with slowness, and to say that someone is slothful is to call the person lazy.  

There are six species still living today, and all of them are classified into two genera: the Bradypus and the Choloepus.

The Bradypus has three toes on both the forelimbs and rear, while the latter comes with two toes on the forelimbs and three at the rear.

Scientific Classification

  • Kingdom: Animalia 
  • Phylum: Chordata 
  • Class: Mammalia 
  • Superorder: Xenarthra
  • Order: Pilosa
  • Suborder: Folivora 
  • Family: Bradypodidae
  • Genus: Bradypus/Choloepus 
  • Scientific Name: Choloepus hoffmani (Hoffman’s two-toed sloth) 


  • Length: 21 to 29 inches 
  • Weight: 10 to 13 pounds 
  • Venom/Poison: No
  • Skin Type: Fur 
  • Habitat: Tropical rainforests 
  • Range: Americas 
  • Diet: Omnivore 
  • Life span: 25 to 40 pounds 
  • Gestation Period: 150 to 182 days
  • Conservation status: Endangered 

5 Interesting Facts About Sloths 

1. They are slow in everything

The attribute is accurate. Sloths are slow animals and may even be characterized as sluggish. They spend all day on trees eating and sleeping.

This has given it a bad rep, and one of the seven deadly sins is named after it. However, few people know that slowness is a form of survival.

These animals have been around for a long, dating to the time when dinosaurs roamed the earth. As such, many have concluded that their survival strategy is effective.

They are low energy, so they compensated for that by living a slow lifestyle.

2. They are 3 times stronger than humans

They may be slow, but one thing you can’t accuse these mammals of is weakness. On the contrary, they are very strong, 3 times more than humans. Sloths are known to carry very heavy objects with just an arm the minute they are born. 

This strength serves them well and is partly the reason they can hang from a tree and even sleep off.

It is also hard for a predator to rip them off, another survival point. They have special tendons used to grip objects. 

3. They take personal hygiene seriously

That they’re arboreal doesn’t mean they can just relieve themselves anywhere and at any time.

Birds might take that freedom, but not sloths. They only go once a week and poop out like a third of their body weight during that period. 

And the best part is, they always take the harder road when they need to relieve themselves.

Rather than stay on the tree, they’d climb down to the roots and dig a hole before getting into their bathroom business. 

4. They are good at swimming 

Sloths are incredible swimmers, though they don’t look like it! When they’re not in trees moving is often difficult because of how tougher it is for them to move with their long arms and short hind legs.

They compensate for that by being excellent swimmers. Those that live near water take advantage of it.

They simply drop into the waterbodies and swim either in search of a mate or a new place to stay. They can swim a long distance in a short time. 

5. They don’t see in the bright

While other mammals have difficulties seeing in the dark, sloths have a different problem. They are completely in broad daylight due to the absence of cone cells in their eyes.

Cone cells play the role of giving us colored vision, and without those sloths are color blind. They see poorly in dim light and can’t see at all during the day. This condition is called rod monochromacy.

How do they cope then? What they lack in sight, they make up largely in the sense of smell and strong memory. Their eyesight is part of the reason they’re slow. 

General Description 

The animal got its name from a combination of the word “slow” with the ending “th”. The name provides the first common trait of sloths, as we’ve already discussed.

They are slow animals that live an unhurried lifestyle. Their slowness is a result of their poor eyesight and their slow metabolism.

They also have a low body temperature, falling between 25°C to 35°C (that’s 77 to 95°F).

There are six extant species, which are:

  • Hoffman’s two-toed 
  • Brown-throated 
  • Maned
  • Linnaeus’s two-toed 
  • Pygmy three-toed 
  • Pale-throated

Recall that these species are divided into two genera. Four of them are classified under the Bradypus three-toed while the remaining two are placed under the Choloepus. Here’s a table to highlight this classification. 

Bradypus (three-toed)Choloepus (two-toed)
Pygmy three-toed Linnaeus’s two-toed 
ManedHoffman’s two-toed 

The difference between both genera lies first in the number of toes. The Bradypus has three toes all over while the Choloepus comes with two at the front and three behind. This isn’t their only divergent point, however.

The second difference is the number of neck bones they have. While the two-toed has between 5 to 7 neck vertebrae, the three-toed has an impressive 8 to 9. The latter surpasses that of all mammals.

Mammals generally have 7 neck vertebrae (like humans). The only exceptions are the Manatee with 6 and now the sloth with 5 to 9 in total. 

The final unique features are the coat hairs and the limbs. The hair grows away from the arms and legs, which is quite different from other mammals where the hair grows towards the arms and legs.

Sloths also have algae that grow on their fur and help them camouflage. The limbs enable it to hold on to trees but don’t serve it much on the ground. 

Distribution and Habitat 

Ancestors of this animal lived in North, South, and Central America, but modern ones can only be found in the South and Central.

Their range is limited to the Americas alone. You won’t find a sloth in Europe, Africa, Asia, and not in Antarctica. 

These guys love trees because they’re adapted to those, so they pick an environment well suited for that. They inhabit different types of forests like rainforests, mangroves, and cloud forests.

You can also find them on some islands. They do most of their activities on trees including sleeping, eating, mating, and raising their young. 


They’re generally classified as omnivores, but the three-toed types are herbivores. These feed exclusively on plants with a diet comprising fruits and leaves.

Their two-toed friends are the omnivores, alternating between plants and small animals.

They feed on lizards, insects, fruits, and leaves. Sloths need little food because of their low metabolism. Their digestion is slow, taking up to days and even months.

They have many stomachs with bacteria that enables successful digestion. These bacteria are responsible for breaking down food material. The sloth’s diet is low energy, which could be a reason they are slow. 

Reproduction and Mating Process

Both two-toed and three-toed types are promiscuous, but there’s a difference in how this is expressed.

Amongst the two-toed species, one female can mate with different males at a time. However, amongst the three-toed types, one male can mate with different females. 

Another mating difference between both types is the time they mate. Two-toed sloths have no set time and ask for a mate year-round.

In comparison, three-toed individuals tend to mate during the late summer and early fall. The duration of pregnancy differs too, with three-toed mothers giving birth after six months while two-toed ones go for one year. 

Not much is known about how they mate, but it does seem as if the females do the attracting. She makes a call out to signal any male in her range that she’s ready to mate.

Experts also suggest a sexual selection going on between them, with the females selecting the best male. There might also be some conflict between the males. The mating process itself doesn’t seem to last long. 

Newborns stay with their mothers till they’re old enough to gain independence. They cling to their mothers, and their dependent stage might stay for 5 months.

Mothers show some atom of care, but don’t seem to bother if the little one slips and falls off, either because of slowness or laziness.

After 5 months, the young one leaves its mother to gain independence. They find a part of her territory and claim it as her own.

The young ones don’t distance themselves completely from their mothers as they keep their communication intact.

Predators and Threats

Despite being high up, these tree climbers have their share of predators. These predators can easily reach up and grab the sloths, though the latter have ways of defending themselves.

Common animal hunters include snakes, jaguars, and large birds of prey. 

Sloths defend themselves by swiping at the predator. They also use camouflage to hide from predators, and in extreme cases would chew on poison ivy to suffocate their predators.  

The human threat is a good reason for the species that are vulnerable and critically endangered.

These are the maned three-toed and the pygmy three-toed respectively. Besides hunting, human activities have led to habitat loss and the pet trade among others. 


The sloth is mainly nocturnal and solitary. They tend to spend time away from others and might be aggressive toward individuals of the same sex if they cross paths.

Thus, they hang on their trees alone, eating and sleeping. They hardly come down except to relieve themselves or swim. They are more vulnerable on ground level because of their limbs. 

These animals swim much like an expert human swimmer would, using breaststrokes and long limbs to push through. Their bodies are also light on the waters, making them float. 

As nocturnal creatures, sloths stay active at night and sleep throughout the day. They can sleep for up to 15 hours a day or even more.

Moving too fast takes a lot of energy than these animals have, so unless when necessary they hardly move.

It can be hard to tell if a particular individual is alive or dead as they can remain hanging even when dead. Creepy. 

Their best trees seem to be palm trees. You have better chances of seeing a sloth on a palm tree than others, that is if you can pick it out amidst the coconuts. 

Male vs Female 

Distinguishing a male from a female is a very hard job as both genders practically look the same. It is not uncommon for people to mistake one sex for another, as is the case with Moe.

Some zoo keepers would prefer letting DNA testing do the work than trying to decipher it on their own. 

Unlike other mammals and big animals, sloths show no signs of sexual dimorphism.

There are only minute differences in physical appearances, but not enough to simply observe and pick them out. In personality, males are often considered shy. 

The only sure way you can tell the male from the female is to look for individuals with young ones hanging on their backs. Those are usually females. 

Frequently Asked Questions

Why is the sloth slow?

These animals have a slow metabolism with a diet that doesn’t provide a high amount of energy. These two factors contribute to their slowness, and they hardly move unless they have to. They’re usually hanging on trees. 

Are sloths dangerous? 

While they’re slow and may look harmless, they should not be trifled with. Sloths can scratch to defend themselves, and if you get too close you could be injured.

Are sloths friendly?

As docile as they seem, sloths are not friendly and do not make good pets. You can’t bond with them the way you will with a cat or a dog, and even those in captivity aren’t always approached by their caretakers. 

Where can I see a sloth?

These mammals are natives of South and Central America, where they often inhabit forests because there are more trees there. It is difficult to see one in the wild as they often stay hidden, but you can locate one in captivity.

Final Thoughts 

Sloths may be slow, but they aren’t handicapped. These animals have lasted since the days of the dinosaurs by relying on their slowness and camouflage.

There are two genera and six species with different characteristics, but all regroup to be classified as slow mammals.

With more species being on “Least Concern”, we can expect to see them in the distant future.