Meditation on Slow Angels

Something you may know about me: in college, I was a botany major. Something you may not know about me: in my junior year, my concentration was in canopy ecology. My grand plan was to go climb trees in the rainforest and inspect the animal life living in epiphytic bromeliads. (I am somewhat off-track.) But last week I found a book my dad bought second-hand and forgot to give me for Christmas, Life Above the Jungle Floor, a travelogue by a canopy ecologist working in Costa Rica, and have been enjoying ever since. And this brings me to my latest “weird animal” post:

The sloth. Not an animal you need an introduction to, but one that’s been much on my mind lately. Here are some things you may not know about the sloth:

  • Despite being the slowest moving mammal on earth (top speed: 200 yards/day), they are fairly successful, accounting for up to half the mammalian biomass in a hectare of rainforest. Of the six species still alive today, only one is endangered.
  • They are so weak that they cannot walk on all fours, and in the rare circumstance that they need to travel across the forest floor, they have to literally drag themselves.
  • Despite this fact, they are excellent swimmers.
  • Because they live upside-down, they have evolved the ability to turn their heads 270 degrees, like an owl, so as to see things right-side up.
  • Like me, they are apparently enamored of beer. Unlike me, they seem to hold their liquor surprisingly well.

But these are only surface-level factoids. To see why they’ve been on my mind, and what the sloth has to do with my theory of Fractal Earth, read on.

Despite that they’re named after a deadly sin, I think of sloths as fairly angelic creatures. It’s not just the constant, idiotic smile they have, or that they’re forever facing heaven. Here are the salient facts:

  • Adult sloths nurture several species of algae, molds, and occasionally plant life in their fur, which help them camouflage with their green world.
  • Their hairs are hollow, so as to accommodate this algae within them.
  • Sloths, like cows and many other leaf-eating species, have a symbiotic bacteria in their digestive systems to break down the indigestible cellulose into digestible sugars.
  • Sloths only shit once a week. One would think that an animal that lives, sleeps, copulates, and gives birth in the treetops would also shit from the treetops. But no, they actually climb down to the base of the tree that is the center of their territory, dig a hole, and bury their shit, thus fertilizing their mother tree.
  • In addition to various bacterial, fungal, and plant species, sloths host a surprising number of insect species in their fur. As many as 900 individual beetles alone have been found on one sloth; that’s not counting all the non-beetle insects. Most notable of these is a moth that lives only in a sloth’s fur, and which only lays its eggs in the sloth’s buried feces at the roots of its mother tree.

This suggests multiple things to me. If the Earth is, in fact, a fractal of infinite complexity, it must contain animals which host an entire microecology of their own, such as the sloth. It seems to me that underevolved animals compete, whereas truly evolved, successful species cooperate. The sloth’s own slo-mo sense of time, including its apparently poor sense of hygiene, has actually accelerated mutualism between it and other species, allowing for a more complex, and beneficial (the algae and moth get a home, the sloth gets a critical advantage of camouflage) symbiosis. Sloths display mutualism in their guts, in their fur, and in their immediate environment. (The bacteria, the algae/fungae/insects, and the tree.)

In short, the sloth is a miniature planet. By living slowly and peacefully, it has become a mother species to other species. The sloth is an example of what could happen to, say, us, if we persisted without becoming the major extinction event we seem to be, without violence, and formed bonds with disparate species of organisms which may, at the onset, not seem immediately beneficial. As it is — as much as you shudder to admit it — we are home to mites that live only in our eyelashes; our bodies are savannahs to tiny creatures that eat our dead skin cells and allow us to regenerate; where could we go from here, if we stayed in virtual stasis? What benefits could we reap, if we could just wait? There is much virtue to slowness. It allows time to overtake us, and create for us friendships which make us blessedly reliant on the Earth that sustains us. The sloth is the Buddha, hanging from the boughs of the Bo tree, waiting patiently for the world to work its magic, trusting that it will, in time.

About quantumbiologist

Christian Drake, AKA The Quantum Biologist, is a naturalist and poet formerly of Albuquerque, NM and currently living deep in the backwoods of the Connecticut Berkshires. He has worked in aquariums and planetariums, national parks and urban forests. When not birding or turning over rocks to find weird bugs, he enjoys rockabilly music, gourmet cooking, playing harmonica and writing dirty haiku. View all posts by quantumbiologist

5 responses to “Meditation on Slow Angels

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