They are part of the order Pilosa and are therefore related to anteaters, which sport a similar set of specialized claws. Extant sloths are arboreal (tree-dwelling) residents of the jungles of Central and South America, and are known for being slow-moving, hence named "sloths". Extinct sloth species include many megafaunal ground sloths, some of which attained the size of elephants, as well as a few species of marine sloths.
Sloths make a good habitat for other organisms, and a single sloth may be home to moths, beetles, cockroaches, ciliates, fungi, and algae.
Sloths are classified as folivores, as the bulk of their diets consist of buds, tender shoots, and leaves, mainly of Cecropia trees. Some two-toed sloths have been documented as eating insects, small reptiles, and birds as a small supplement to their diets. Linnaeus's two-toed sloth has recently been documented eating human faeces from open latrines. They have made extraordinary adaptations to an arboreal browsing lifestyle. Leaves, their main food source, provide very little energy or nutrients, and do not digest easily. Sloths, therefore, have large, specialized, slow-acting stomachs with multiple compartments in which symbiotic bacteria break down the tough leaves. Sloths' tongues have the unique ability to protrude from their mouths 10 to 12 inches, an ability that is useful for collecting leaves just out of reach. As much as two-thirds of a well-fed sloth's body weight consists of the contents of its stomach, and the digestive process can take a month or more to complete.
Since leaves provide little energy, sloths deal with this by a range of economy measures: they have very low metabolic rates (less than half of that expected for a mammal of their size), and maintain low body temperatures when active (30–34 °C or 86–93 °F), and still lower temperatures when resting.
Although unable to survive outside the tropical rainforests of South and Central America, within that environment sloths are outstandingly successful creatures. On Barro Colorado Island in Panama, sloths have been estimated to comprise 70% of the biomass of arboreal mammals. Four of the six living species are presently rated "least concern"; the maned three-toed sloth(Bradypus torquatus), which inhabits Brazil's dwindling Atlantic Forest, is classified as "vulnerable", while the island-dwelling pygmy three-toed sloth (B. pygmaeus) is critically endangered.
Sloth fur exhibits specialized functions: the outer hairs grow in a direction opposite from that of other mammals. In most mammals, hairs grow toward the extremities, but because sloths spend so much time with their legs above their bodies, their hairs grow away from the extremities to provide protection from the elements while the sloth hangs upside down. In most conditions, the fur hosts two species of symbiotic algae, which provide camouflage. Because of the algae, sloth fur is a small ecosystem of its own, hosting many species of non-parasitic insects. Sloths have short, flat heads, big eyes; short snouts, long legs, and tiny ears. Some species have stubby tails (6–7 cm long). Altogether, sloths' bodies usually are between 50 and 60 cm long.
Sloths' claws serve as their only natural defense. A cornered sloth may swipe at its attackers in an effort to scare them away or wound them. Despite sloths' apparent defenselessness, predators do not pose special problems: sloths blend in with the trees and, moving only slowly, do not attract attention. Only during their infrequent visits to ground level do they become vulnerable. The main predators of sloths are the jaguar, the harpy eagle, and humans. The majority of recorded sloth deaths in Costa Rica are due to contact with electrical lines and poachers. Their claws also provide a further unexpected deterrent to human hunters; when hanging upside-down in a tree, they are held in place by the claws themselves and often do not fall down even if shot from below.
Despite their adaptation to living in trees, sloths (like many other rainforest animals) make competent swimmers. This is likely to have been true of the extinct ground sloths, as well, as evidenced by the fact that megalonychid sloths were able to colonise the Antilles by the Oligocene, and that the megalonychid Pliometanastes and the mylodontid Thinobadistes were able to colonise North America about 9 million years ago, well before the existence of the Isthmus of Panama. Additionally, the nothrotheriid Thalassocnus of the west coast of South America became adapted to a semiaquatic marine lifestyle.
Sloths move only when necessary and even then very slowly; they have about a quarter as much muscle tissue as other animals of similar weight. They can move at a marginally higher speed if they are in immediate danger from a predator (4 m or 13 ft per minute for the three-toed sloth), but they burn large amounts of energy doing so. Their specialised hands and feet have long, curved claws to allow them to hang upside down from branches without effort.While they sometimes sit on top of branches, they usually eat, sleep, and even give birth hanging from limbs. They sometimes remain hanging from branches after death. On the ground, the maximum speed of the three-toed sloth is 2 m or 6.5 ft per minute.
Sloths were thought to be among the most somnolent animals, sleeping from 15 to 18 hours each day. Recently, however, Dr. Neil Rattenborg and his colleagues from the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Starnberg, Germany, published a study testing sloth sleep patterns in the wild; this is the first study of its kind. The study indicated that sloths sleep just under 10 hours a day. Three-toed sloths are mostly diurnal, while two-toed sloths are nocturnal.
Sloths go to the ground to urinate and defecate about once a week, digging a hole and covering it afterwards. They go to the same spot each time and are vulnerable to predation while doing so. The reason for this risky behaviour is unknown, although some believe it is to avoid making noise while defecating from up high that would attract predators. Consistent with this, they reportedly relieve themselves from their branches during storms in the rainy season. Another possible explanation is that the middens provide the sloths with one of their few methods of finding one another for breeding purposes, since their sense of smell is far more acute than their eyesight or hearing. Still other recent studies have suggested that it might be relevant for maintaining the ecosystem in the sloths' fur. Individual sloths tend to spend the bulk of their time feeding on a single "modal" tree; by burying their excreta near the trunk of that tree, they may help nourish it. Recently there has been some speculation that sloths go to the ground to defecate because of their mutually beneficial relationships with moths. While the sloth defecates, female moths that otherwise live on a sloth will get off and immediately lay their eggs directly on the fecal matter, on which the larvae survive until they mature to adulthood and are able to fly onto sloths. Incidentally, it appears that sloths benefit from their relationship with moths because the moths are responsible for fertilizing algae on the sloth, which provides them with nutrients.
Infant sloths normally cling to their mothers' fur, but occasionally fall off. Sloths are very sturdily built and rarely die from a fall. In some cases, they die from a fall indirectly because the mothers prove unwilling to leave the safety of the trees to retrieve the young. Females normally bear one baby every year, but sometimes sloths' low level of movement actually keeps females from finding males for longer than one year. Sloths are not particularly sexually dimorphic and several zoos have purchased sloths of the wrong sex.
Almost all mammals have seven cervical vertebrae (neck bones), including those with very short necks, such as elephants or whales, and those with very long necks, such as giraffes). The few exceptions include manatees and two-toed sloths, which each have only six cervical vertebrae, and three-toed sloths with 9 cervical vertebrae.