The strange case of sloths found in bathroom of research center

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Ricky Joseph

Sloths are beautiful and enigmatic animals, they spend most of their time hanging upside down from trees, have a greenish tinge to their fur and enjoy a herbivorous diet of leaves, flowers, fruits, bark and shoots. But a curious case, to say the least, happened in a toilet of a research center in the middle of the Peruvian Amazon.

In the middle of the Amazon rainforest, which is home to the two-toed sloth ( Choloepus didactylus ), there is a research station called Estación Biológica Quebrada Blanco (EBQB), which has been in continuous use since 1997. One night in early November 2001, the scientists saw for the first time something never observed before: there was a sloth hanging from the wooden bars above the toilet.

"He was picking up the semi-liquid dung composed of feces and urine with one hand, and then eating it," a team of researchers wrote in a 2011 paper.

As more researchers approached, the sloth then scaled the bars and climbed the nearest tree. Ultimately, scientists at the outpost documented 26 more cases of sloths eating human excrement, straight from the toilet. (Image: Heymann et al., Mammalian Biology, 2011)

This strange occurrence might have been dismissed as a sick sloth behaving in an unusual way, had it not been repeated. Over time, more and more sloths reappeared from inside the toilet. Scientists at the outpost documented more than 26 cases of sloths eating human excrement, straight from the toilet.

The animals always came at night - in keeping with their nocturnal habits - and most often when it rained. They emerged from the soaked toilet and slowly returned to the forest, usually alone. But a female sloth was also caught with a cub hanging from her fur.

A female sloth and her cub was leaving the toilet and heading towards the forest. (Image: Heymann et al., Mammalian Biology, 2011)

These events raise a question: why did sloths - which have never been observed eating anything but plants in the wild - do this?

One possible answer may lie in other animals that eat excrement, a practice called coprophagy. This includes rodents and lagomorphs, such as rabbits; and, to a lesser extent, dogs, foals, piglets and non-human primates. This behaviour has also been observed in cave salamanders. And the reason appears to be nutrient supply or a means of digesting nutrients.

Note the example of rabbits, which cannot absorb nutrients effectively in the first pass, so they must digest them twice. Koala mothers feed their young a special type of poop to prepare the digestive system for the transition from milk to eucalyptus leaves. Cave salamanders may eat bat droppings as an alternative when food isscarce.

The researchers believe there could have been some nutrient or mineral in the toilets that was attractive to the sloths. Sodium, for example, which is often lacking in a leafy diet; or even protein, found in the worms squirming in the mud. However, this practice could have been dangerous for the animals - the transmission of harmful bacteria and other parasites from humans tosloths. From there, they could spread to other animal populations.

But in 2007 the researchers put an end to the illegal toilet invasions. They surrounded the latrine with wire mesh, so the sloths couldn't get through. And well, that's for the best.

A study on the strange behavior of sloths was published in 2011 in Mammalian Biology .

SOURCE / Science Alert

Ricky Joseph is a seeker of knowledge. He firmly believes that through understanding the world around us, we can work to better ourselves and our society as a whole. As such, he has made it his life's mission to learn as much as he can about the world and its inhabitants. Joseph has worked in many different fields, all with the aim of furthering his knowledge. He has been a teacher, a soldier, and a businessman - but his true passion lies in research. He currently works as a research scientist for a major pharmaceutical company, where he is dedicated to finding new treatments for diseases that have long been considered incurable. Through diligence and hard work, Ricky Joseph has become one of the foremost experts on pharmacology and medicinal chemistry in the world. His name is known by scientists everywhere, and his work continues to improve the lives of millions.