Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Love Life of the Three-Toed Sloth

By Alfred B. Mittington 

(Royal Academy of Tropical Zoology)

(From: The Collected Works of Alfred B Mittington, vol. xxxiii, pp. 64-79)

What I see when I stroll into the Ape House of the Zoo and study the Three-toed Sloth, dear reader, is Extinction. Extinction incarnate. Extinction of the kind that did in the good ol’ Shakers.

Shakers at their most… remarkable.

 Now I understand I ought to explain a thing or two before moving on with this fascinating zoological treatise. Few people nowadays have any idea who or what the Shakers may have been. This comes as no surprise, since there are no Shakers left. To put it in a nutshell (which I dare say is a word well chosen in this context): the Shakers were an even stricter, more devout and - to speak the truth - more hilari­ous split-off of the well-known Quakers, a Protestant sect dedicated to Doing Good, Getting to Heaven and making other people morals. Shaker ideology took Biblical precepts to its most unforgiving extreme. Not only should one do one's best to love one’s neighbour, forgive one’s enemy, and try to get ever closer to the Lord (their ecstatic fits during religious service earned them the moniker by which they are known) but celibacy should be practiced rigorously, the full 100 %, by absolutely everybody of the Faith. Consequently, and despite the fact that Shakers lived in mixed communities, not a single Shaker ever produced offspring. Shakers did not fornicate. Shakers did not procreate. Shaker communities were replenished only by new converts. And since time and death proved considerably faster and more powerful than the persuasiveness of Shaker missionary zeal (which is small wonder seeing that they offered a package of hard work, no drink, tasteless food and total sexual abstinence), the last Shaker died, if I remember well, somewhere in the early 1920s at the venera­ble age of 112, childless, happy to go meet Her Maker and by now shaking, one imagines, only from Alzheimer’s Disease and the bodily wreckage caused by extreme old age.

Now what does all this have to do with the Three-toed Sloth? I hear the reader ask, perhaps just a trifle impatient…

Well, despite appearances, much more than you may think, dear reader..!

The three-toed Sloth[1] is a South-American mammal that lives in trees. Well, lives... lives…? Vegetates might be the better expression for what it does. For we commonly associate the notion of Life with a minimum of movement and at least some reaction to stimuli. And in that department, the Sloth does not excel. To picture a Sloth, the reader should imagine a kind of bleached and uncombed Afghan Hound with the muzzle and the tail removed, hanging upside down from a tree-branch on four amazingly long paws, each of which sports three big, black nails which can lock themselves around a branch like a vice. Nature has indeed prepared the Sloth well for hanging from trees: a pit bull terrier's jaws are child's play compared with the grip of a Sloth's paw. Nothing in the world, not the juiciest banana nor the highest voltage Taser shock, could possibly convince a Sloth to let go of its tree if it doesn't want to do so. And it does not want to do so. Ever. Because, if there is anything which a Sloth loathes thoroughly, from its natural condition and its genetic make-up, it is the naked thought of motion.

Not for nothing has “sloth” become a by-word for laziness, dear reader. This ape is the slowest, the most inert and the least vital creature ever to come out of Noah's Arch (according to an obscure Aramaic passage in the Dead Sea Scrolls, it had to be car­ried down the gangway...) Its average energy consumption has recently been calculated to hover around twenty calories in a good year (approximately the digestive yield of a quarter string of vermicelli). The dumb thing barely ever moves, and when it does, its locomotion comes only with the most melancholy sluggishness and inert reluctance. To move a paw from one position to the next, takes approximately ten minutes. To move all four paws can easily take a day. And to move the whole sad bundle, pathetic muzzle to absent tail, down to the end of a five foot bough may well cost half a life-time (provided it doesn't forget somewhere along the way where it was going in the first place).

Fortunately, nature has been kind to the Sloth. Early on, it endowed the species with a digestive system fit for green leaves; whatever sort of green leaves which it finds hanging in front of its muzzle. Had it been any other way, had the Sloth fed on such fast and volatile things as – let us say - snails or beefsteak toma­toes, the species would - very early on during the Darwinistic Holocaust - have joined the Dinosaurs and the Dodo by way of simple malnutriti­on. As it is, it survives. But don't you ever expect to see a pack of famished Sloths attack and defoliate a tree in an herbivorous orgy. A single cater­pillar does more damage. What am I saying? I've seen Sloths trying, and the tree was faster!

This then, is the Sloth, the Oblomov of Apes, the zombie of the rainforest; the Sleepy Hollow of the Biological Outback. Food-wise, it managed to hold on to its ecological niche because it never moved out of there (how could it?) Psychologically it seems to be content with its somnambulant state of being (or at least, if it does have nervous breakdowns, we never notice them). Ecologically, it fits in marvellously well with—

            But what does all this have to do with the fricking Shakers?!!

screams the much-tried reader who did not pay good money to listen to rambling prattle.

Procreation, mumbles the humble author. Simple, naked, down-to-earth procreation. You know: The Act. The birds and the bees. Or in this case rather: the sloths and the trees. For here’s the mystery: How do they do it? How does one three-toed sloth ever get close enough to another three-toed sloth to become, well, you know: cosy? And if by pure coincidence they do collide, how then do they ever reach a sufficient level of ecstatic throbbing motion to, you know… make babies? The bloody thing won’t come alive for fire or flood. It will not move for food or comfort. An earthquake couldn’t wrench it from its spot! How then could mere hormones? For the Three-toed Sloth to have a love life is positively unthinkable. And so the species ought to have become extinct, exactly like them good ol’ Shakers, within the first generation after its emergence.

Since there are enigmas which even a man as highly intelligent as myself cannot possibly unravel through mere systematic deduction, I decided to consult Dr Jeroen Bos of ‘Natura Artis Magistra’, the Amsterdam Zoo. Doctor Bos is one of Europe’s foremost experts in Simonology, or Ape-studies, and in return for only a minor fee, he agreed to consult the – rather scarce – literature upon the subject. The following summary on the procreative ‘activities’ of the Three-toed Sloth is the result of his efforts.

‘The reproductive cycle of the Bradypodidae, dear collaegue,’ so Doctor Bos wrote me, ‘is really more a matter of the growth of trees than the lust of apes. Statistical field work by the Simonological Faculty of Sidney Municipal University has yielded the basic empirical statistic that the faster the trees in any given area grow, the more baby sloths one finds. This phenomenon, known among experts as the ‘Von Humboldt Simeo-Dendero Correlation’ (after its original discoverer, Humbert von Humboldt) was already observed and formulated some 150 years ago. It took science not a short while to unearth the true mechanism behind this symbiotic relationship. But at long last, I dare say, we have cracked this hardy nut!’

‘The process takes place in the following manner. By a simple coincidence of nature, a female sloth makes her permanent home, early in life, in the top of a young and healthy tree. Naturally, the old girl never again moves from this privileged position. The tree then begins to grow. And since tropical trees grow fast, it may happen that, after a fair number of years, one morning when the cock grows and the sun rises, the lady Sloth discovers that her position has shifted considerably in the upward mode, and she now finds herself dangling high above the foliage-level of the rain forest. Exposure to sunbeams triggers a distinct hormonal reaction. To use a hallowed phrase: the lady sees the light, and her biological clock tells her it is time for Sex. Reversing the roles between the sexes as it exists among our Human Species, in which the boys invariably whistle after the girls (haha), the girl Sloth begins to emit a shrill, high-pitched and extremely loud whistle, which may be heard for miles around, in order to attract the attention of possible mates.”

The reader will forgive me for taking over at this point from the very learned, but rather chatty Doctor Bos, among whose many splendid qualities brevity shines only through its total absence. I summarize his findings and his erudite account:

Changing, so to speak, from a sloth into a slut, the furry Christmas ball in heat sends forth her screeching mating call. The male Sloths down below instantly go bananas (which, come to think of it, is not so very odd for apes.) If only they had ears, they would prick them up. As it is, they go into unheard of libidinous activity, and a mad race ensues between all the males within hearing range. Paws are stretched out! Claws lock themselves around previously untouched branches! Hindquarters are lifted to new heights, and so on, and so forth, at 5m/24h. All boy sloths wish to be the first to reach that treetop where carnal bliss awaits them.

Boy Sloths going absolutely Bananas

Now, from here on, there is something of a blank page in the research papers, since no investigator has ever had the patience to wait for the whole process to be completed (few of them live that long, and most reach retirement age before the business has been brought to a close). Consequently, it is not known how long it really takes the winner to reach his prize. By way of indication, however, it may perhaps be mentioned that among the Blantung Indians of Mata Grosso there exists a Cosmogenetic Myth which says that it took the Primeval Male Sloth 19 years and half a day to reach the Primeval Mama Sloth with whom to bring forth the Primeval Egg which hatched the Blantung Universe. Of course, creation myths often exaggerate such periods of time, and as that bit with the Egg shows, the Blantungs themselves had only the vaguest notion of how Sloth Reproduction truly takes place.

However that may be, one male sloth eventually manages to find his way all the way to the top of the tree. Unsurprisingly, it is not speed, but aim and direction which decides the outcome. As the pack crawls forward, most competitors simply lose the race by losing their way. At crucial moments they proceed up the wrong branch, and all of these candidates end up dangling undecidedly somewhere among the lateral foliage of the tree. The Sloth with the best Vertical Sense comes out the winner – a mechanism which is known among the Simonologists, with a naughty wink, as the Survival of the Erectest. 

As soon as this Supersloth arrives, the female stops her whistling. The effect is devastating. All other competitors instantly stop dead in their tracks, and never move another inch from where they find themselves. From this loser’s position they then witness the consummation of the treetop marriage, which decency, space and an aesthetical sense forbids me to describe in detail. Let it merely be said that one should not expect to find rapturous scenes from Deep Throat or Blue Movie among mating sloths; and that the phrase “the heights of ecstasy” really only refers to the altitude at which the whole lamentable business takes place.

But there you have it reader. Yes, indeed, it is possible. It happens! Sloths mate! Sloths procreate! Sloths Do It, in spite of all appearances! A mystery is solved! A tip of Mother Nature’s burka has been lifted!

But, as so often, solving one problem really only creates the next. What, I ask, of Birth? What of the Mystery of New Life being brought into the world? How does th├ít happen? Must we imagine a tree top delivery?? Na – that can barely be! Just picture it: Mama Sloth, highly pregnant, is hanging from her branch. She calmly chews a eucalyptus leaf which a merciful breeze has blown between her teeth last autumn… Suddenly – and inapt as the word may sound here – she goes into Labour. Out pops little Baby Sloth! And next? Does the poor little new born drop down, and end up dangling by the umbilical cord, suspended, so to say, by its Oedipal ties, swinging in the wind until the vital cooperation of its growing weight and the forces of erosion breaks the maternal bond? And if so, how does Young Sloth ever manage to get back up that tree again (if it doesn’t break it bloody little neck, that is)!? Ah, there is never an end to the Enigmas of the Natural World!

But the answer to this particular question will have to wait until the next issue of this series, to wit: Child Abuse Among The Three Toed Sloths. 

[1] There also exists a two-toed variety, but, as the name already implies, Mother Nature has endowed that subspecies with even fewer blessings. Consequently I prefer not even to discuss it!