A sloth’s life seems pretty sweet, right? You get to hang out in trees all day, munching on food, sleeping all the time, and moving real slow to blend in with your surroundings. For a sloth, Sunday is every day. Laziness is just the sloth way.
While this might sound luxurious, scientists have revealed that all this chill comes crashing down once a week when a sloth has to take a poop – an ordeal that’s more akin to childbirth than a quick trip to the restroom.
You’ve probably never given much thought to the pooping habits of sloths, and we can’t blame you. But you should, because it’s generally pretty horrifying. It turns out that one of the side effects is all that slow movement – some meals can take sloths up to a month to digest – is a really sluggish bowel system.
Not only do sloths only poop once a week – more than enough time to cause some serious constipation – they also have to do so on the ground, making them an easy target for predators.
Though, after watching the video below, captured by Bittel at the National Aviary, predators might be too shocked to even approach. (We’re not sure about your boss’s stance on sloth pooping videos, but consider it NSFW):
According to Jason Bittel at The Washington Post, a sloth can lose one-third of its body weight from pooping, and that amount of faeces is no fun to push out.
“You can watch their stomachs physically shrink as they poo,” sloth biologist Rebecca Cliffe from Swansea University in the UK told him. Oh, and it all comes out in one push.
Pooping is really the only reason for a sloth to ever leave its tree, and it’s the only time they have to stand upright. According to Cliffe, once sloths make their way down from their trees, they do a ‘poo dance’ to dig a small hole to go in.
After the deed is done, they do another little dance to slightly cover it up, before heading back up, presumably feeling a whole lot lighter than they were on the way down.
Since pooping is something all animals do in one form or another, why do sloths wait such a long time between bowel movements, and why do they risk their lives, when they could easily just rain poo down from the tree tops like other canopy dwellers do?
In short, no one really knows. Bittel says that one of the best hypotheses – posed by a team of researchers from the University of Wisconsin back in 2014 – is that sloths poop in such a weird way to keep a balance between them and moths.
The team suggests that, in a weird symbiotic relationship, moths that live on sloths help fertilise a type of algae in the sloths’ fur. This algae is important to a sloth’s survival because it gives the fur a greenish hue – camouflaging the creature from predators – and possibly providing nutrients when eaten or absorbed through the sloth’s skin.
So the sloths might go down to the ground to poop so they can provide a place for the moths to lay eggs, ensuring their life cycle.
Though, according to Cliffe, this hypothesis doesn’t really hold up to scrutinty, because of the danger a sloth faces on the ground – over half of all sloths die while outside of their trees – and sloths bred in captivity do not need moths or algae to survive, and still do it anyway. Instead, she says that it may have to do with sex.
“Whatever is going on, it’s got to be kind of life or death for survival,” she told The Washington Post. “In my brain, that tells me that it’s probably something to do with reproduction, because that is the driving fact behind most animals’ crazy behaviours.”
The general idea behind this, Cliffe says, is to mark a tree for other sloths, basically alerting them that a fertile female is waiting in the canopy above, though more research is needed before any sort of conclusion can actually be drawn.
The moral of this story is that we should be thankful that our bodies pass waste in a much less painful and dangerous way than a sloth. (And if you relate way too much to the sloth experience, then you might want to get that checked out).
A version of this article was first published in June 2016.