Sloths are famous for a lot of unique characteristics. They're known for being slow, for climbing around upside-down in trees, and for growing algae in their fur. On the internet, they're mostly famous for being heart-meltingly adorable. But the two-toed sloth also has an infamous relationship with poop.

If you're a sloth fan (and really, who isn’t?), you may be familiar with the plight of the pooping sloth. While these tree-huggers spend most of their lives munching leaves up in the branches, they insist upon relieving themselves down on the ground. This involves a slow and epic weekly journey all the way down to the base of a tree, a ritualistic poo dance, and then the long slog back up.

Scientists have puzzled for many years over why the sloths routinely take such a potentially dangerous trip just for a potty break. Many ideas have been suggested, but the mystery remains to this day.

But there's more to the sloths-and-poop story. It turns out sloths won't just go out of their way for the sake of their own poop – they'll come for yours, too! 

Nestled within the Amazon rainforest in north-east Peru is a research station called the Estación Biológica Quebrada Blanco. It has everything hard-working scientists need to get through the day, including a latrine, of course. In 2001, researchers spotted an unexpected guest in their toilet: a two-toed sloth. And the intruder wasn't using the facilities as a restroom ... but as a dining room.

It's always amusing when scientists describe such things in that proper technical language expected of scientific reports. When reporting this behaviour in 2010, the researchers wrote: "At around 2000 h, a sloth was detected hanging underneath the wooden bars of our latrine. It was scooping with one hand from the semi-liquid manure composed of faeces, urine and toilet paper and then eating from the hand."

Over the course of the next several years, this behaviour was seen more than 20 times. Sometimes it was just one sloth, but occasionally moms would bring their babies along. The incidents usually unfolded under the cover of darkness, perfect for a nocturnal sloth sneaking some tasty excrement. When the sloths left, presumably after eating their fill, they were … ah, well, the scientific report describes them as "completely moistened". Gross.   

What possessed these animals to dine on human fertiliser? The scientists suggested the sloths may have been acquiring useful nutrients or vitamins from the latrine buffet, or that they were after the insect larvae making their homes there. In 2007, they finally covered the latrine with wire mesh, cutting the sloths off. You can read a segment of the report in a recent Discover Magazine post.

The eating of poop, scientifically, is referred to as coprophagy or coprophagia, and sloths aren't the only ones doing it. Rabbits regularly eat their own poop to gain an extra dose of nutritional value, and baby elephants dine on their mothers' faeces to pick up important bacteria for their digestive systems. Pigs are known to eat poop if there's still some undigested material in it. Incredibly, there are even plants that collect and digest animal excrement.

But outside of bathroom-loving insects, few animals have ever been known to dive into human toilets and steal the stool. Behold the incredible sloth – unique, adorable, unexpectedly disgusting, and always full of fascinating surprises.

h/t: Discover


Top header image: Christoph Lorse, Flickr