Three-toed sloths have a highly-specialized diet of exclusively leaves, mostly guarumo leaves. This limited diet may make these beloved mammals especially vulnerable to human-caused ecological disturbances, but a new study indicates that three-toed sloths may be in a bit of luck.
Published last week, a study based in Costa Rica revealed some optimistic findings about the fate of the mammal: guarumo trees are so important to the species that even when three-toed sloth habitat is altered or encroached upon by humans, the presence of the guarumo tree goes a long way to preserve the health of their populations.
Guarumo trees are often used to establish regenerative forests because they take root quickly and are fast-growing, making them a tree of choice at shade-grown cacao plantations in Costa Rica. Last week’s study found that cacao plantations with an abundance of guarumo trees were more hospitable habitats for sloths than plantations with only a few guarumos. Their presence increased the birth rate and survival rate of the resident three-toed sloth population even in areas that had been reshaped by human intervention. (Cue the sloth and pain au chocolat memes!)
Of all mammals, three-toed sloths have the slowest digestive systems on the planet. They have multiple chambers in their bellies to break down the tough leaves of the guarumo tree, one of their only food sources; it takes approximately two weeks for a sloth to digest a single meal and they only poop once a week (which happens to be one of their most life-threatening activities). Because this digestive process is so inefficient, sloths have evolved to expend as little energy as possible, moving slowly and rarely — hence, their given name, sloth or perezoso.
Having so much food in one place is a boon to the sloths, but the airy structure of the guarumo trees may also have created prime pickup conditions for adult sloths on the hunt for a new mate. “Sloths are often seen sunbathing in the mornings,” explained one of the researchers in an interview with the New York Times. He suggested that this increased visibility might make it easier for sloth singles to find one another.
What Does All of This Have to Do With Pineapples?
If you’re a conscious consumer who hasn’t thrown in the towel yet over making animal- and human-friendly decisions at the grocery store, consider the devastating effect that pineapple cultivation has on the ecosystem. While three-toed sloths are currently not at risk for extinction, the researchers noted that the expansion of the pineapple industry is putting their habitats at risk.
In the past few years, Costa Rica has increased production of pineapple by ten percent, exporting most of the product to the United States and Europe. One 2017 report covered how entire forests have been felled overnight, at times illegally cleared, in order for pineapple producers to set up shop. Commercial pineapple plantations are also a serious health hazard for any living being in their vicinity, requiring a large input of harmful herbicides and pesticides that destroy the health of the soil and contaminate sources of water for both animals and people who live near the plantations.