Why Pooping Can Be a Life-Threatening Experience for a Sloth

iStock/Damocean
iStock/Damocean

Being a sloth isn’t all lazing around in trees and munching on leaves. Occasionally, the slow-moving animals have to make their way to the forest floor to do the one task no animal can escape: pooping. It’s a much more intense process than heading to the bathroom is for humans. And for a startling number of sloths, it turns deadly.

The sloth metabolism, like everything else about these odd rainforest animals, works very slowly. It can take them up to a month to digest a meal. Their extra-slow digestion means they might only take a dump once a week, if not once a month. The poor creatures are always incredibly constipated.

So when they do poop, the result is enormous. A single bowel movement could be up to a third of the sloth’s body weight—a measurement that’s 282 percent of what scientists would expect to see in an animal of that size, according to one sloth-poop analysis from 1995.

The particular bathroom routine depends on the type of sloth, though. Two-toed sloths are often fine with letting it rip from the forest canopy (woe to any animals that might be hanging out below), while three-toed sloths determinedly make their way to the ground to do their business. Once they get down to the forest floor, they dig a hole, take a poop, then cover it up with leaves and make their way back up to the canopy.

That’s where the danger comes in. Pooping on the ground is one of the most risky things a sloth can do in life. By one estimate, up to half of sloth deaths can be linked to these rare bathroom trips. Sloths can barely walk, thanks to their long claws and limbs that are designed to hang from trees; they don't support their weight on the ground very well. (They have significantly less muscle mass than other mammals.) Instead, they crawl, dragging themselves forward with their forelimbs. That makes them laughably easy targets for predators.

Scientists aren’t entirely sure why three-toed sloths take this huge risk to poop. One study has suggested it could be related to the symbiotic relationship the animals have with the critters that live in their hair, which include a specific type of potentially nutritious algae that may benefit from the journey to the ground. That hypothesis is fairly controversial among sloth experts, though, because it’s not clear that the sloths actually eat this algae, or that it makes any kind of real impact on their diet.

For now, sloths’ dangerous bathroom habits remain mostly a mystery.

The Time German and Russian WWI Soldiers Banded Together to Fight Wolves

iStock.com/567185
iStock.com/567185

During the winter of 1917, Russian and German soldiers fighting in the dreary trenches of the Great War’s Eastern Front had a lot to fear: enemy bullets, trench foot, frostbite, countless diseases, shrapnel, bayonets, tanks, sniper fire. Oh, and wolves.

In February of that year, a dispatch from Berlin noted that large packs of wolves were creeping from the forests of Lithuania and Volhynia into the interior of the German Empire, not far from the front lines. Like so many living creatures, the animals had been driven from their homes by the war and were now simply looking for something to eat. “As the beasts are very hungry, they penetrate into the villages and kill calves, sheep, goats, and other livestock,” the report, which appeared in the El Paso Herald, says. “In two cases children have been attacked by them.”

According to another dispatch out of St. Petersburg, the wolves were such a nuisance on the battlefield that they were one of the few things that could bring soldiers from both sides together. “Parties of Russian and German scouts met recently and were hotly engaged in a skirmish when a large pack of wolves dashed on the scene and attacked the wounded,” the report says, according to the Oklahoma City Times. “Hostilities were at once suspended and Germans and Russians instinctively attacked the pack, killing about 50 wolves.” It was an unspoken agreement among snipers that, if the Russians and Germans decided to engage in a collective wolf-hunt, all firing would cease.

Take this July 1917 New York Times report describing how soldiers in the Kovno-Wilna Minsk district (near modern Vilnius, Lithuania) decided to cease hostilities to fight this furry common enemy:

"Poison, rifle fire, hand grenades, and even machine guns were successively tried in attempts to eradicate the nuisance. But all to no avail. The wolves—nowhere to be found quite so large and powerful as in Russia—were desperate in their hunger and regardless of danger. Fresh packs would appear in place of those that were killed by the Russian and German troops.

"As a last resort, the two adversaries, with the consent of their commanders, entered into negotiations for an armistice and joined forces to overcome the wolf plague. For a short time there was peace. And in no haphazard fashion was the task of vanquishing the mutual foe undertaken. The wolves were gradually rounded up, and eventually several hundred of them were killed. The others fled in all directions, making their escape from carnage the like of which they had never encountered."

Afterward, the soldiers presumably returned to their posts and resumed pointing their rifles at a more violent and dangerous enemy—each other.

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