From the Jungle to the Lab: the end of an era and a new beginning

12 Nov

For almost 6 years I have been working and living in the remote jungles of Costa Rica studying a rare and ancient species, the sloth. Although these years have undoubtedly been the best of my life, it has often been far from glamorous. I have contracted a flesh eating parasite, had emergency surgery in a third world bus station (complete with scurrying invertebrates) and been at the center of an international incident in Panama. I have survived being stranded on a true desert island, watched everything I own grow mouldy (including my hair) and come face to face with crocodiles, poisonous snakes and the worlds most venomous spider. I crowd-funded $110,000 for sloth research, made an award winning TV series with The Discovery Channel, learned to scale primitive jungle trees and permanently lost sensation in my finger because a sloth squeezed it too vigorously. Now, as I pack my bags and prepare to move my life (and my failed scat-detection dog) back to England for a while, I know that I am going to miss this strange place that has somehow become my home. I have made friends that will last a lifetime, discovered a whole new appreciation for nature, and most of all, I have learnt to trust in EWOP – to trust that Everything Works Out Perfectly.


Releasing Bojangles for the last time

During the last 6 years I have been tagging and monitoring the behaviour of both wild and captive two-fingered and three-fingered sloths in an exhaustive study into sloth biology at the Sloth Sanctuary of Costa Rica. I have collected data on the metabolic rate, genetic diversity, anatomy, physiology, digestive efficiency, thermoregulation, ranging patterns, mating systems, energy expenditure and diet of these animals (Phew!). Now, the time has finally come to take this mountain of information back to the SLAM lab at Swansea University (the Swansea Lab for Animal Movement). Here I will be utilising the state of the art visualisation suite in order to properly analyse the plethora of data that we have collected. I will be creating 3D maps of movement, colour coded to show the different behaviours, and I will be processing the 500 faecal samples, 360 blood samples and 600 hair samples that I have accumulated. Data analysis is no small feat. During my time in the jungle, I have managed to collect 157 continuous days of movement and behavioural data for wild three-fingered sloths (that is 3768 hours of data – with the Daily Diary recording 8 parameters 32 times a second that equates to almost 3.5 billion data points)! On top of that I also have 73 days of continuous data for wild two-fingered sloths. To say that I have my work cut out is an understatement. Despite the momentous task ahead, I am more excited than ever to begin piecing the story together and to finally be able to publish the results of my hard work.

Retrieving all of the backpacks was no easy task

The past few weeks have been an unbelievable whirlwind of work and emotions. I have been frantically trying to wrap up all of my research, export my samples and catch my remaining wild sloths with backpacks. I absolutely refuse to return to the UK and leave a wild animal with any sort of tracking device still attached. I managed to retrieve most of the backpacks without too much trouble, but one sloth caused me a bit of a headache. Apple has had her backpack on for almost three years, since the time of her birth to Bojangles. I have been tracking her consistently throughout that time, but never managed to find her low enough down to catch again. With one week left before my leaving date, time was running out. One lucky day I spotted a female sloth hiding in a densely packed clump of vines in a tree that I know Apple frequents. To my delight, Apple’s backpack signal was also coming very strongly from the same location. With only 20 minutes of daylight left, I sprinted through the jungle back towards the sanctuary to find a ladder. Together, my research assistant Sarah and I lugged the heavy contraption back through the jungle to the spot where Apple was hiding. After a bit of sweating, swearing and many failed attempts, we eventually managed to extend the 15 meter ladder and lean it precariously against the tree. Without a second thought, I scrambled up into the canopy, disturbing a termite nest and getting showered with aggressively biting insects. I was determined to catch her though. After a lot of struggling, I got close enough to grab her hands… only to discover, to my horror, that this wasn’t Apple. I had caught the wrong sloth. Defeated and sore, I returned to the jungle floor ripe with disappointment. After this disaster, it took a few more days until I found Apple the original. It was two days before I was scheduled to leave, and she was very well hidden in one of her favourite trees. This time I hired some help, sanctuary handyman Donald, he scaled the tree and brought the sloth down. To our surprise, Apple had been hiding a tiny secret. Clinging to her chest was a little ball of fur. No more than 3 months old, she had a brand new baby! I removed her backpack, took some hair samples from the pair for genetic analysis and released them both into the same tree. It may have taken a while and been a last minute recapture, but Everything Works Out Perfectly!


After catching Apple we discovered she had a tiny new baby

Leaving Costa Rica

As always seems to be the case, my eventual departure from Costa Rica was plagued with drama and last minute disasters. I have spent the last 11 months carefully preparing to bring my failed scat-detection dog, Cody, home to England with me. Bringing any animal into the UK is a challenge, particularly a dog that has been living in the jungle for two years. In order to avoid quarantine, I had to have him micro-chipped with a UK microchip, re-vaccinated against rabies and three months later we then had to send a blood sample to a UK laboratory to confirm that he was protected. We had to organise a mountain of official paperwork, all authenticated by a lawyer, and have him de-wormed before travel. I had to find a travel crate that met the exact (and very precise) specifications of the airline and travel to the airport three weeks before departure to have the crate approved and weighed. I was told, after finding what I though was the perfect crate, that it was 1 inch too small for the dog. Everything had to be exactly right. Finally, after having all of the documents approved and confirmed, Cody decided to eat something extremely toxic just 6 hours before we were due to leave. I frantically woke up my local vets with a panicked phone call in the middle of the night and ran with him in my arms to meet them at the clinic. He couldn’t stand up and was having full body spasms. After everything we had been through, I thought I was going to lose my best friend! I was inconsolable. Thankfully, the fast actions of the vets saved him and by some miracle he was ok to leave by the time our taxi arrived (although very dazed and somewhat tranquilized). It was truly heartbreaking loading him into his crate, knowing that I wouldn’t see him for another 27 hours.


In the meantime, Sarah and I had packed our entire lives, a mountain of equipment and a lot of frozen sloth samples into four giant suitcases. Despite having all of the necessary permits (which took 12 months and far more stress than necessary to obtain – including having to specify the exact species and location of every single pigeon within 5 miles of Swansea university), I was fully expecting half of our suitcases to be confiscated on our way through the US.

Finally receiving my sample export permits after a 12 month struggle

Finally receiving my sample export permits after a 12 month struggle

To everyone’s surprise, all of our belongings turned up safely on the luggage carousel at London Heathrow – prompting a mini celebration from Sarah and I. Even the sloth samples were untouched! This was our first big hurdle overcome. Unfortunately, things didn’t work out quite so well for Cody. Despite his near death experience, he made it safely to England, but the customs agents decided that his last de-worming treatment had been given one day too early. After all of the hurdles, red tape and ridiculous loop holes that I had to jump through to get him on the plane, we were now arguing over a pill being given 24 hours early. They insisted that he had to be kept in quarantine in London for 24 hours. So, after a mammoth 34 hour journey, I then had to make another 9 hour round-trip to collect Cody from quarantine the following day. Thankfully he is now safely home and learning how to behave like an English dog (i.e. no more chasing lizards and eating his body weight in sand from the beach).

Collecting our mountain of luggage at London Heathrow

Collecting our mountain of luggage at London Heathrow

Next week I will be moving into my new house in Swansea and will finally begin tackling the overwhelming task of data analysis at the University. It will no doubt be slow progress initially as we start to input the numbers and process the samples, but hopefully I will have some results to report soon. I will keep you updated with how things progress over the coming months – knowing sloths, there are bound to be some surprising and unexpected discoveries on the horizon!


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