Sloths: Evolutionary losers or the true jungle king?
Sloths are unfairly ridiculed and underappreciated animals, says zoologist and filmmaker Lucy Cooke.
Lucy Cooke is a National Geographic Explorer with a Masters in zoology from Oxford University (where she was taught by Richard Dawkins). She loves travel and adventure and has a soft spot for some of the planet's strangest and most misunderstood animals.
So it’s no secret that I’ve got a soft spot for sloths. I founded the Sloth Appreciation Society; our motto? “Being fast is overrated.”
I think the sloth is the true king of the jungle. But its reputation has been besmirched for centuries. Every since it was first discovered people have misunderstood sloths. The first explorers that went to the New World and saw sloths described them—in no uncertain terms—as absolute losers.
There was a conquistador, a Spanish conquistador, I think he was the first to describe the sloth, said it was “the stupidest animal that could be found on the planet.”
Then they were saddled with a name that speaks of sin, and just misunderstood for an incredibly long time.
And again, they are an animal that people think of as being some kind of evolutionary loser; because they’re slow we think that they are therefore kind of stupid and useless. “Well, they can’t run from danger so how do they survive?”
Well, they actually survive very well indeed, which is why I think they are the true kings of the jungle.
Because there was a survey done in a Panamanian rainforest, and they found that it was something like a third of the mammalian biomass in that particular forest was made up of sloths. So that’s like you take all the mammals from the forest—a third—a third of that mass would have been taken up by sloths.
So all the rest was all the rats, all the ocelots, all the tapirs, everything else took up two thirds, but a third of it was sloths, which is just a huge amount! I mean that’s a very successful creature.
Partly we just don’t realize that because they’re very hard to see, they’re very stealthy. So one of the things, the great things about being really slow is you don’t really get noticed, which—if you’re trying not to be eaten—is really quite a good idea.
So monkeys for instance: you are always aware of monkeys. When they turn up there’s a lot of crashing around and fruit being thrown to the ground, and they make a lot of noise. The sloth is moving very slow, with extraordinary control. I always watch them and think “Wow the core control of that animal is amazing!” It’s like watching Swan Lake in slow motion, I mean they really just move so fantastically slowly.
But those slow movements, we think, slip under the radar of the Harpy eagle as it’s swooping around the canopy; they simply don’t get noticed. And I think one of the reasons why the early explorers so misunderstood the sloth is because they were viewing it the wrong way up!
So I think when the conquistadors first arrived in the New World they would have been brought examples of animals, they wouldn’t have gone into the jungle and observed them in situ, they would have been brought animals.
And with the sloth this is an inverted quadruped; it is designed, it has evolved to live its life upside down, because that’s incredibly energy efficient. If you live your life upside-down the only muscles that you really needed to work are these ones, so they can hook on and hang like a happy hairy hammock and just get on with the busy business of digesting their very indigestible food. They’re basically sort of dangling fermenting bags of food.
But that upside-down existence requires very little energy, so they have almost got rid of the muscles that are like triceps, that hold us erect; they just have the muscles that you use to sort of draw yourself along.
When I’m at rest sitting in this chair I’m using quite a lot of muscles to hold myself upright, but sloths don’t need any of those.
So when the early explorers were brought sloths, of course they were taken out of their context: they were no longer dangling from the tree.
The thing about the inverted existence is that it requires 50 percent, around 50 percent of the muscles of an upright existence, so it’s much more energy efficient.
The problem is if you turn a sloth the wrong way up gravity removes its dignity, and it sprawls on the ground and is forced to sort of, like mountaineering on a flat surface, I mean it really is a pitiful sight! They sort of drag themselves along like this. And that, of course, would have been how the early explorers would have seen them: as a ludicrous quadruped that’s sort of sprawled on the ground and can’t hold itself up.
So I think that was where this idea that they were “useless” came from, and it stuck.
Sloths are unfairly ridiculed and underappreciated animals, says zoologist and filmmaker Lucy Cooke. They are actually adapted to their life in the forest in a very ingenious way. In fact, they may be the ultimate survivors, making them the true kings of the jungle.
A recent study gives new meaning to the saying "fake it 'til you make it."
- The study involves four experiments that measured individuals' socioeconomic status, overconfidence and actual performance.
- Results consistently showed that high-class people tend to overestimate their abilities.
- However, this overconfidence was misinterpreted as genuine competence in one study, suggesting overestimating your abilities can have social advantages.
Is this proof of a dramatic shift?
- Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
- Does it show the triumph of "fake news" — or, rather, its defeat?
- A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses
Dramatic and misleading
Image: Reddit / SICResearch
The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.
Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.
The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.
Let's zoom in:
- It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
- By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
- Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
- In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
- Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
- By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.
Image source: Reddit / SICResearch
This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?
- "The end is near."
- "The idiocracy grows."
- "(It's) like a spreading disease."
- "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
- "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
- "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
- "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
- "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."
Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:
- "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
- "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
- "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
- "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."
"Old people learning to Google"
Image: Google Trends
CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)
But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:
- "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type 'cnn.com'?"
- "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
- "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
- "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."
A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.
The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.
One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.
Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.
It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.
CNN, Fox and MSNBC
Image: Google Trends
CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison
For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):
- Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
- MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
- CNN: 706,000 (-9%)
And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes cnn.com in 28th place, and foxnews.com in... 27th place.The top 5, in descending order, consists of google.com, youtube.com, facebook.com, amazon.com and yahoo.com — the latter being the highest-placed website in the News and Media category.
If you thought your mother was pushy in her pursuit of grandchildren, wait until you learn about bonobo mothers.
- Mother bonobos have been observed to help their sons find and copulate with mates.
- The mothers accomplish this by leading sons to mates, interfering with other males trying to copulate with females, and helping sons rise in the social hierarchy of the group.
- Why do mother bonobos do this? The "grandmother hypothesis" might hold part of the answer.
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