The Sloth Backpack Project – April 2015

01 May

I began 2015 with a strong feeling that this was going to be a great year, and so far it’s turning out to be true. The Sloth Backpack Project is really beginning to pick up speed and I have a lot of exciting new sloth research underway.

February saw the arrival of my wonderful new research assistant – Sarah Kennedy. Sarah first came to the sanctuary as a volunteer 3 years ago and immediately became infatuated with the sloths. Although she has no scientific background, her love of sloths motivated her to quit her day job and move to Costa Rica, where she now spends her days with me trekking through the mosquito infested jungle in the never ending pursuit of sloths (…these animals clearly make people do crazy things)! In the last two weeks alone we have endured an all-too-close encounter with a Brazilian wandering spider (the most venomous spider in the world) and stumbled across a fer-de-lance (the most dangerous snake in Costa Rica). I have never been more thankful for my snake boots! Despite the jungle horrors, her arrival has been a blessing. With Sarah’s help, my rate of data collection has increased dramatically and the project is expanding faster than ever before. 2015 really is shaping up to be a good one.



A brief catch up:

In November, after a surprisingly hectic turn of events, I finally managed to tag my first wild two-fingered sloth with a tracking backpack sponsored by Earth Touch (you can read more about that little fiasco here). I knew Beckett wouldn’t be easy to recapture, but she really took the biscuit. We could usually locate her easily enough using the VHF transmitter (I say easily enough – using VHF in the jungle is torturous), but because two-fingered sloths are primarily nocturnal she was often found sleeping in a ball at the top of a ginormous tree during the day. Not exactly convenient. After 5 months of frustration I was beginning to fear that her backpack batteries would soon run out, and so I decided to take drastic action. A team of crazy Nicaraguan free-climbers were drafted in and I set them the challenge of retrieving Beckett. It turned out to be less challenging than I thought – they scrambled up that huge tree barefoot and made catching her look like a piece of cake. I was finally able to download her data, change the batteries and release her with a fully charged tracking backpack again. This time I am keeping the Nicaraguans on speed-dial.



Since tagging Beckett I have managed to deploy backpacks on three more wild two-fingered sloths: Willa, Walda and Lizz (Beckett’s fully grown daughter, mentioned here). Thankfully they were all much easier to handle than Beckett, and I have managed to retrieve most of these backpacks over the last few weeks – the results were astonishing. I can’t go into too much detail about the data at this early stage, but it’s safe to say that the sloths are full of surprises. They certainly aren’t ‘lazy’ that’s for sure.


My work with wild three-fingered sloths has also been a huge success so far this year – we have managed to further expand the sample size and re-catch some familiar faces, including Mr Bojangles. Despite being difficult to spot, Mr Bojangles has been somewhat of a dream to re-catch as he always goes back and forth between the same few trees and he always seems to be low down. There have been a fair few trips up the ladder in the last few months! Unfortunately, once I’m up in the tree, Bojangles is not the easiest sloth to wrangle. For such a small little sloth (and a three-fingered one at that) he is surprisingly feisty! Despite the difficulties, we are getting some great data from him.



In March, the Costa Rican firemen turned up at the sanctuary with a male three-fingered sloth that had apparently been rescued from somebody’s house (exactly what he was doing in somebody’s house is still a mystery). He was in perfect health, but there was something strange going on. This three-fingered sloth had four toes. Four perfectly formed toes on his left foot. We often see sloths with missing digits due to genetic deformities, but this is the first time we have ever seen a sloth with extra toes! We aptly named him Quatro and released him within the Sanctuary’s protected forest reserve with a tracking backpack. Of all the wild sloths I have worked with during the past 5 years, Quatro has by far been the most difficult. For three weeks me and Sarah ventured into the jungle every day to find him, and for three weeks we failed to see him. Although I could get a strong signal from his transmitter, I just couldn’t see him.



In all of my recent sloth backpacks I have been braiding a link of dissolvable plastic into the harnesses. Over the course of about a month, this plastic weakens in the rain and humidity until the backpack eventually drops off and falls to the rainforest floor. The amount of time this process takes depends largely on the weather, but I have found it to be hugely successful over the last few months. It has certainly improved my rate of backpack retrieval! Despite spending hours in the jungle every day, I never did manage to visually locate Quatro (the four-toed world champion of hide and seek), but I did discover his backpack on the forest floor after 4 weeks of searching for him!

Thanks to Sarah’s arrival, I have finally found the time to get the ball rolling on many of our other sloth research projects (there are 12 in total)! Since February I have begun an exhaustive study on sloth digestion, and in May I will be joined by Professor Rory Wilson and Dr Mike Scantlebury for an exciting study into the metabolic rate of both wild and captive sloths. During the last two months I have also started to collect hair samples from wild two and three-fingered sloths for our research into the genetic diversity and cause of deformities in wild sloth populations.




Pygmy Sloths

I was delighted to discover last month that I had been granted permits (in collaboration with biologist Sam Kaviar and paeleoecologist Ryan Haupt) by the Panamanian government to complete an extensive study into the population status, diet and mating systems of the Pygmy sloths (which are now thought to be one of the worlds most endangered mammals)! You can read more about that exciting project here. We believe that this research will be a huge step forward in increasing our knowledge and therefore our capability to conserve this isolated, critically endangered and poorly understood species. If you would like to get involved in this project, please see our campaign page for more information on how you can help:

Last month I was also delighted to publish my latest scientific paper – you can read more about that here.

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