The Slow Loris

Its life is not a happy one, for it is continually seeing ghosts; that is why it hides its face in its hands.

— Daniel Giraud Elliot

When it comes to cute and funny animals on the internet, cats and dogs easily rule the charts; occasionally, parrots, rabbits, and otters bubble up. Every so often, a more exotic example becomes a viral sensation. About a decade ago, the slow loris dominated the headspace of browsers. This adorable critter ate rice balls, received tickles, and played with umbrellas.

The slow loris is a small, nocturnal primate native to Southeast Asia. It is known for its distinctive appearance, with large, round eyes, a short snout, and a fluffy coat of fur. Despite its name, the slow loris is actually quite agile and is able to move quickly through the trees.

And, despite the high level of adorableness, the slow loris doesn’t want to be your pet or your internet sensation.
A Sumatran Sunda Slow Loris - photo by David Haring/Duke Lemur Center
Distribution map of different species of slow loris - graphic by IUCN Red List

Slow lorises are primates that belong to the genus Nycticebus, which means “night monkey” in Ancient Greek. Taxonomists now recognize eight distinct species, named for where they reside: Sunda, Bengal, Javan, Philippine, Bangka, Bornean, Kayan, and Sumatran. Another species – the pygmy slow loris – used to inhabit Nycticebus, but recently moved to Xanthonycticebus.

Despite the nomenclature, these primates are not monkeys; their closest relatives are lorisids, pottos, false pottos, and angwantibos (all fantastic names). You might notice a bit of a resemblance to the lemurs of Madagascar, a distant relative on the evolutionary tree to the slow loris. 

The Bengal slow loris - photo by Helena Snyder
The Javan slow loris - photo by Aprisonsan

Though the charm of this creature’s looks is undeniable, the slow loris features several other remarkable traits.

One of the most interesting things about the slow loris is that it has a toxic bite. The loris produces a toxic substance in sweat glands on its elbows! It licks the toxin, which is activated by saliva into a venomous compound. Primatologists once believed this strange adaptation served primarily as a defense to predators, but now believe it to be mostly used against other slow lorises. Interestingly, the toxin contains a protein related to Fel d 1, which is the compound that causes many cat allergies.

Being distant cousins of lemurs, it’s no surprise that slow lorises are fantastic climbers. They have extremely strong toes and a specialized network of capillaries that allows them to hang upside down for hours without losing sensation. I would kill for a set of these retia mirabilis – Latin for “wonderful net” – while I sit daily on the porcelain throne for too long.

I can do this all night - photo by David Haring/Duke Lemur Center

The etymology of “loris” is a bit odd, as it’s supposedly a French derivative of the Dutch word loeris, which means “booby” or “clown.”

The “slow” portion comes from their deliberate movements, in addition to their reactions to danger or stress. Indonesians call them malu malu, which translates to “shy one.” When they see a human, the lorises tend to cover their faces; when touched, they often splay their appendages.

These reactions have had quite the unusual, negative evolutionary pressure on the animals. In addition to the giant eyes and furry coats, humans seem to find their reactions to be quite winsome. When humans find multiple attributes to be cute on an animal, they tend to become pets. Since they become flop toys in human hands, many people believe they enjoy attention. Instead, they are terrified.

This viral video of a loris being “tickled” displays the issue:

In addition to the strains of becoming pets, slow lorises also occupy a mystical reputation from the human populations where they live. Some Indigenous people from Borneo believe the slow loris is the gatekeeper of the heavens; when you die, a slow loris greets you in the afterlife. This lovely possibility is the exception, however. Other populations utilize body parts of the loris for “medicine” or for protection from evil. Some Malays believe the slow loris influences the actions of people, causing them to commit crimes. This led early primatologist Daniel Giraud Elliot to attribute the loris’ predilection to hiding its face to the fact that they are “continually seeing ghosts.”

When humans use animals in folk medicines, we overhunt them. Add a burgeoning pet trade and diminishing habitat to this fact and the slow loris is in trouble. All slow loris species are labeled as “Vulnerable” or “Endangered” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Thankfully, laws protect these animals from hunting and sale. Unfortunately, both these illicit activities continue.

The slow loris is inherently adorable; there’s no denying it.

Many cute critters, however, do not make good pets. Cats and dogs are not endangered and actually enjoy the companionship of humanity. When it comes to the slow loris, you’ll have to get your adorable fix through pics and vids!

Further Reading and Exploration

Slow Loris – Duke Lemur Center

Slow loris – Wisconsin National Primate Research Center

Genus Nycticebus – IUCN Red List

Slow Loris – International Animal Rescue

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