Who Are You Calling a Deadly Sin?

The sloth’s slowness is its virtue. /

At the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., there lives a two-toed sloth. Specifically, this sloth occupies a box in the Small Mammal House.

At least, that’s where the sloth has been every single time I have visited the zoo, and I have been five times over the past two years. Of course, the sloth does leave his box; friends sometimes send me cellphone photos and videos, capturing the sloth while he hangs from a tree branch or climbs around—but in spite of my best efforts, I’ve never seen him outside the box.

And after two years of trying, I don’t want to.

It’s hard to explain, but you have to start way, way back in time. Paleontologists have identified at least 23 different kinds and sizes of prehistoric sloths, but the most impressive of these is Megatherium. Its name stems from the Greek words mega [μέγας], meaning “great,” and therion [θηρίον], “beast”—and rightly so.

Megatherium was the size of a modern-day elephant, weighing up to six or seven metric tons. Standing on its hind legs, Megatherium could reach a height of more than 20 feet. It towered over most other mammals, except mammoths and mastodons.

Megatherium was indeed a great beast.

But not much is known about Megatherium and its North American counterpart, Megalonyx (from the Greek “great claw”). Paleontologists can’t even say exactly how these giant ground sloths went extinct—or how they’re related to today’s three- and two-toed tree dwellers that fit happily in a bucket.

But what we do know is that few animals—kittens, puppies, and maybe baby pandas—spark viral Internet delight the way baby sloths do. For many people, ...

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Also in this Issue

Issue 32 / October 1, 2015
  1. Editor's Note from October 01, 2015

    Issue 32: Sloths’ splendid slowness, Lilias Trotter’s gambit, and a cross-eyed view of God. /

  2. ‘I Cannot Give Myself to Painting’

    Why one of the greatest Victorian artists walked away. /

  3. The Cross Alone Is Our Theology

    What must God be like? Jesus’ death upsets every simple answer. /

  4. The Basics of Iridescence

    ‘the bare bones of that fleeting / soap-bubble sheen’ /

  5. Wonder on the Web

    Issue 32: Links to amazing stuff. /

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