It has been a rather un-slothful start to the new year, with a lot of progress being made on the sloth science front. Since Christmas, I have managed to tag an additional four wild sloths with tracking backpacks (including a mother with a baby!), and I am beginning to build up a nice picture of their ranging patterns, and perhaps most importantly, their diet.
Sloths are famous for their unusual and bizarre bathroom habits. Both two-fingered (Choloepus) and three-fingered (Bradypus) sloths will only defecate once a week, and for some strange reason they will only do it on the ground. For a sloth, this is a big deal. A sloths entire lifestyle is based around avoiding detection and using as little energy as possible. It takes a sloth an entire month to digest just one leaf, meaning that they don’t have much wiggle room when it comes to expending energy. Descending from the safety of the canopy to the forest floor is not only energetically very costly, it is also a suicide mission. Sloths are extremely vulnerable to predation when on the ground. As if that isn’t enough, these animals can store up to a third of their body weight in faeces; lugging that extra weight around is no easy task when you are a sloth. So why bother? There must be a huge selective advantage to this weird weekly routine – it should be obvious. Yet this remains one of the biggest mysteries surrounding sloth behaviour and one that scientists have struggled to explain for decades.
It’s never easy when we get a phone call at the sanctuary telling us that a sloth needs our help. On this occasion, we were told that a beautiful two-fingered sloth had been electrocuted on the power lines and was in trouble. The gentleman told us he would collect the sloth and bring her to the sanctuary – but he never arrived. We assumed the worst had happened and that she hadn’t survived. We were wrong.
Madonna is the female three-fingered sloth with a baby that I tagged 3 months ago with a GPS tracking backpack. Whilst out in the forest this week searching for her, I began to receive very strange radio signals. Something was wrong. After a few hours of searching and hacking through the dense undergrowth, I stumbled across an interesting surprise…
For the last year we have been collaborating with Discovery/Animal Planet on a major eight-part series about our work here at the Sloth Sanctuary. We have filmed dramatic sloth rescues, emotional releases and all of the daily dramas associated with providing a home to over 100 orphaned and injured sloths. ‘Meet the Sloths’ also features a lighthearted look at some of our ground-breaking scientific research – this includes the beginning of the Backpack Project, discovering how sloths can swim and busting some common myths about sloth speed and digestion.
When we wake up every morning at the Sloth Sanctuary, we can never predict what the day is going to bring. Friday the 1st of November was certainly no exception. I had just emerged from the mosquito infested jungle after monitoring Madonna when we noticed a MINAET (environmental ministry) vehicle pull into the sanctuary. Our hearts sank. This could only mean one thing… a new sloth emergency.