Saving the Pygmy Sloths of Panama

30 Apr

The Pygmy sloths of Panama are considered to be one of the worlds most critically endangered mammals with the last official population count identifying only 79 individuals (Kaviar et al. 2011). Beyond the original description of the species we still know almost nothing about these little sloths with scientific rigour. We don’t know how many of them remain, we don’t know enough about their diet and habitat needs, we don’t understand when and how they reproduce, and we still don’t really know why and how they became dwarfed on their small island. Now, after months of working with the Panamanian government, I am delighted to have finally been granted permission to conduct research on the genetics, ecology and evolutionary history of the pygmy sloths in collaboration with biologist Sam Kaviar and paeleoecologist Ryan Haupt. If you would like to help us complete this work, please check out our campaign page:



What are Pygmy sloths?

Pygmy sloths are a dwarfed version of the brown-throated three-fingered sloths found on mainland Panama, but this species is endemic to the remote Isla Escudo de Veraguas. This tiny island, which only formed 9000 years ago, is located 17.6 km off the coast of mainland Panama and covers just 4.3 km2. The pygmy sloths were first described as a distinct species in 2001 based on morphological differences in body size (they are reportedly 40% smaller than the mainland species), but due to a lack of research we still have no genetic information on the status of these animals. Isla Escudo is very difficult to get to, and much of the mixed forest coving the interior of the island remains unexplored. The Pygmy sloths are most commonly found inhabiting and feeding from red mangrove thickets, but these trees are often logged and now only constitute 0.024% of the total island area (1.67 ha). No one really knows whether these little sloths use the dense mixed forest covering the interior of the island, or whether they feed from anything other than red mangrove leaves. With the number of remaining pygmy sloths suspected to be in decline, it is becoming essential that we work towards better understanding the ecology of this amazing species.

In addition to the Pygmy sloths, there are also known to be four other nearby islands in the Bocas del Toro archipelago that support three-fingered sloths smaller in size due to their confinement on an island. Despite being a similar size to the pygmy sloths, these island sloths are still classified as Bradypus variegatus (the mainland species), but the genetic status, health and ecology of these isolated populations are poorly understood.




So what are we going to do?

We are going to carry out a full habitat and population census of the pygmy sloths on Isla Escudo de Veraguas. This will allow us to identify exactly how much mangrove habitat is left on the island and how many sloths are remaining. This will be combined with an exhaustive study into the diet, habitat preference, mating system and evolutionary status of the species through a mix of observations, genetic analysis and stable isotope ecology. This work will also be repeated with the dwarfed island sloths found on island Caya Agua Chica (aka Sloth Island) in the Bocas del Toro archipelago.

We believe that in order to develop lasting, effective conservation strategies, the local indigenous communities should be involved and informed at every stage. We will be working closely with the Ngöbe-Buglé people and incorporating them into our research efforts whenever possible. Our findings will be presented to the Congress of the Ngöbe-Buglé Comarca responsible for the island of Escudo de Veraguas, as well as the to Panamanian government, and the scientific community. We will also be creating a conservation and science education program for children and adults in the local communities.



How are we going to do it?

We are planning to complete this important research during the next couple of months. Body measurement, hair and leaf samples are being collected and exported to the University of Panama, Swansea University and the University of Wyoming for genetic and isotope analysis. We have already completed the initial data and sample collection on the dwarfed sloths of Caya Agua Chica, and we are in the final planning stages for our upcoming research expedition to Isla Escudo.

To date, all of our work has been funded from personal savings and on credit cards. In order to cover the costs of the research expeditions and educational outreach programs, my collaborator Sam Kaviar is running an Indiegogo crowd-funding campaign. We need to raise $11,500 to fund everything, and we are currently standing at $7000 with 38 days to go. If you would like to support our work and help us to complete this important research, please consider donating and spreading the word! You can view the campaign here.

I look forward to sharing our progress with you as this exciting project develops!


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