Sloth Science in 2015

22 Jan

Although 2014 got off to a great start, it unfortunately didn’t end that way. The last few months before Christmas were plagued with disappointments, equipment failures and flesh-eating parasites – but as I have come to learn, that’s science! Things rarely work out as planned, and we have to be flexible in order to find creative solutions to unexpected problems as they arise. In November alone I had 4 backpacks fail due to technical issues, one completely disappeared overnight and the VHF transmitter on another died leaving me unable to track that sloth and his backpack full of data. Thankfully, since the beginning of 2015 things are finally looking up.



In December we managed to launch our latest sloth research fundraiser. The Sloth Sanctuary of Costa Rica are finding more severely deformed baby sloths than ever before – and I want to find out why. A high incidence of birth defects like this are a major warning sign that something is seriously wrong with the wild sloth populations, and I am growing increasingly concerned that these deformities are a consequence of inbreeding due to the high levels of habitat fragmentation. I want to genetically analyse hair samples from wild sloth populations throughout Costa Rica and from the deformed individuals maintained at the sanctuary. From this analysis we can hopefully identify the cause of the observed deformities and develop targeted conservation strategies to mitigate the problem. For example, habitat connectivity can be increased via the plantation of natural corridors between areas which previously had limited dispersal rates. If the situation is found to be critical, we can consider targeted translocations of individuals between isolated habitat fragments.

We only have 14 days to go before the fundraiser deadline, and I am still $7000 away from hitting our target. This is the minimum amount required to complete the project – if we don’t reach our goal, we won’t be able to afford the necessary laboratory equipment to complete the analysis. Please see our fundraiser page for more information, and if you haven’t already done so, please consider donating – no donation is too small!


After the disappointing string of backpack failures in November, I returned to Swansea University over Christmas determined to come up with a design that would increase my rate of data collection and most importantly, not fail! I am delighted to announce that after a lot of drawing, modelling and scratching of our heads, we came up with a winning idea (or two).

Our first design contains a 3D printed housing that utilizes an automatic drop-off mechanism. This basically consists of a small resistor linked to a timer – after 10 days, the resistor (safely located on the inside of the backpack) heats up and melts through a small plastic link, allowing everything to fall off. The only problem with this option is sourcing the necessary batteries. The only cell that will power this system is extremely rare and needs to be specially manufactured in Israel. This makes everything slightly more challenging.


The second design is a little less accurate but it appears to be working equally well. I braided a chain of dissolvable plastic sheeting into the harness which (in theory) slowly degrades in the humidity and rainfall. Of course the drop-off time depends on the weather, and my first attempt with this design fell off after three days of heavy rain, but with a coat of nail varnish on the plastic it now seems to be lasting much longer. This is still in the development phase, but has the potential to drastically increase my rate of data collection!



In January I returned to Costa Rica where the hard work really began. In San Jose I met up with Ryan Haupt: a paleo-ecologist from the University of Wyoming, specializing in giant ground sloths. Ryan is collaborating with the Sloth Sanctuary to study the chemistry of sloth tissues in relation to diet – ‘because you really are what you eat’! He also happens to be trained in tree climbing, and kindly offered to show me the ropes (literally). We have spent the past week together hauling ourselves into trees that we know are frequented by wild sloths. My last three years studying wild sloths have been spent patiently waiting for them to come down to the ground where I can tag them / retrieve the backpack data. This was a very inefficient use of my time and provides a very slow rate of data acquisition. The exciting new ability to climb up into the canopy is going to allow me to drastically increase my sample size and really expand our research. Anyone who knows me will know of my clumsiness and will probably be horrified by the thought of me swinging around in a tree. Thankfully, Ryan has been a great instructor and I have been given just about every piece of safety equipment possible – so far so good!

climbing tree

Since being back in Costa Rica, we have had a very productive start to the new year. I have tagged two new wild sloths and we have a two-fingered mother & baby that are ready to be released with a backpack. These latest backpacks all contained the new drop-off mechanisms and one other important addition – a TILE key finder. These little gadgets link with my iPhone and use Bluetooth technology to pinpoint the location of a missing object (in my case – a sloth / backpack)! Most importantly, the TILE makes a noise when I press a button on my phone, which is game changing when I am crawling around the jungle floor searching for a lost backpack.


I am also delighted to announce that in February I will be joined by my first research assistant – Sarah Kennedy. I have a really great feeling about the year ahead and I am confident that it’s going to be a productive year for sloth science – but I am going to need all of the help I can get! We have a lot of exciting projects in the pipeline – I will keep you updated on how these develop over the coming months.

Posted in: General, Sloths
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