Over the past 10 weeks I have been battling to regain my health after being diagnosed with Leishmaniasis – and as a result, progress with the Sloth Backpack Project has been somewhat slow. This week my luck finally changed, and for the first time in a long time I was able to return to the jungle. As I was searching to locate my tagged sloths, I stumbled across something extraordinary. There was what appeared to be a baby three-fingered sloth, quietly sitting about 5 meters off the ground. He didn’t look to be more than 8 months old, yet he was completely alone.
In my second year at the University of Manchester I studied parasitology, and the terrifying images of dramatic lesions and extreme elephantiasis are burnt vividly into my memory. Of course, I never considered that one day I would become one of those horror stories. In July I was diagnosed with a tropical flesh-eating parasite called Leishmaniasis, and for the past 10 weeks I have been battling to regain my health. We never fully appreciate how lucky we are to be healthy, and unfortunately I learnt this lesson the hard way.
This year got off to a great start, with tracking backpacks being deployed on 4 wild sloths during January and February (I introduced these sloths in a previous blog: Burrito, Star, Pancake and Apple/Pie). Unfortunately, we find that far too much research focuses on achieving the largest sample size possible, yet fails to study individual animals for long enough to understand their patterns of behavior. This is particularly important for sloths as everything happens so slowly! It can take an individual up to 30 days to digest one leaf, so you can imagine how much time is needed to document the complete diet of just one sloth. For this reason, I have spent the past 8 months intensely following the 4 sloths that I tagged with backpacks at the start of this year and getting to know their individual habits. This time has also allowed me to perfect the harness design and iron out any faults with the backpack-tagging process. As a result of this, I am excited to announce that we are finally ready to expand the project and there are exciting plans for the next few months.
What does an average day of ‘work’ involve for a sloth researcher?
This is probably one of the most frequent questions that I get asked, and the truth is, everyday is different! The only consistent feature in my day is an adventure into the jungle to track down my study sloths. I was initially hoping to have a higher number of tagged sloths by now (I currently have four) but I have quickly discovered just how time consuming it can be to properly study each individual!
Sloths are known to spend a significant amount of their time hanging vertically upside down, yet no one has ever discovered how they manage this. If we were to stand on our heads for several hours a day, we would probably end up with a lot of problems. In my latest publication, we solve part of the mystery!
Last month, Sloth Sanctuary founder Judy and I travelled to Texas to visit the sanctuary’s sloth ambassadors currently living at the Dallas World Aquarium (DWA). Because three-fingered sloths are so notoriously difficult to maintain in captivity outside of their natural home range, I was interested to see how these sloths have adapted to living in a simulated rainforest environment in downtown Dallas!