The Urban Sloth Project: Meet BAGUETTE—the master of camouflage!

The Urban Sloth Project: Meet BAGUETTE—the master of camouflage!

Baguette was the third three-fingered sloth collared for the Urban Sloth Project and was a rather spontaneous addition to the project. She was found while Suzi Eszterhas (World-renowned photographer and SloCo trustee) was visiting Puerto Viejo to document the plight of urban sloths.

 

 

Baguette was in a bad spot: atop a fence, desperately trying to reach the lowest nearby tree branch, while below her were two aggressive dogs barking.

 

 

Unfortunately, the branch Baguette was reaching for was little more than a twig, which would certainly not support her 5 kg (11 lbs) weight, and would have broken and dropped her right into the barking dogs. Dr. Cliffe and Suzi judged that the risk of mortality was very high for Baguette.

 Taking action

So Dr. Cliffe climbed on Cecilia’s (our Director of Development, also present) shoulders to reach Baguette, who was less than grateful for the intervention. In fact, Dr. Cliffe said that Baguette was one of the angriest three-fingered sloths she has ever had to handle, and she knows what she is talking about!

 

 

We have some of the adventure captured in pictures by Suzi, but what this one doesn’t show is how high the fence was! At about 2 meters (6 feet), the team would usually have gone back for a ladder in order to more safely handle a wild sloth, but there was no time.

(Instead, we have helpfully illustrated the situation in this fabulously rendered, hand-drawn, one-of-a-kind piece of art! Really, it makes you feel like you were there.)

Luckily for everyone concerned, Cecilia keeps herself in shape swimming, and her shoulders are quite strong!

 

Once Baguette was rescued, measured, health checked, and fitted with a backpack she was released into the area she was trying to reach. Since she was found on the same road as Croissant (known locally as “The Bakery Road”), Team Sloth kept with the naming convention and dubbed her Baguette.

 

 

And there began the journey of one of the most difficult sloths we have tracked to date.

The Heck Swamp

Baguette proceeded to move into an area of forest the Tracking Team promptly dubbed Heck Swamp (yes, that’s a euphemism). It was easy to understand why no one had decided to build on this land –it’s a swamp, and due to the deforestation around it, the frequency of major flooding is quite high.

 

 

While this was a mostly unpleasant area for our Tracking Team, it was a near perfect area for any sloth. The tall Sangrillo trees made for an excellent interconnected canopy, and the lot did not border any major roads, which is good news for animals that don’t want to confront traffic. However, it meant that Baguette was invisible the vast majority of the time, and has an overall visibility rate of only 26%.

A sloth hard to see…

The Tracking Team knew the chance of finding her was quite small on any given day, and the chance of her then being in a catchable spot was even smaller, so SloCo pulled out all the stops and poured resources into finding her.

The better part of April was spent with Amelia, the most experienced tracker (except of course for Dr. Cliffe), the rest of the Tracking Team, and the Connected Gardens Team knee-deep in the swamp, staring up at the trees for hours at a time.

 

Laying on the ground for hours, watching the canopy, does look like idleness, but it’s actually a good way to spot sloths without hurting your neck.

 

Our best chance of finding Baguette was to get as many eyes on the trees as possible.

(And boy did the tracking team feel vindicated when our best sloth spotters—Francisco, Deyber, and Ames—also could not spot her! Ha! If they can’t do it, no one can.)

…and catch

Days passed with no sign of Baguette, other than the incessant beeping of the receiver telling us she was right above our heads.  However, the New Expanded Tracking Team did spot many other creatures; there is such an abundance of life living in this lot surrounded by homes, Airbnbs, and hotels.

Birds, butterflies, squirrels, insects, lizards, and even a Tyra call Heck Swamp home! Team Sloth was so impressed by this diversity of wildlife that we looked into getting Heck Swamp officially protected, and to our delight found that it is already listed as a protected wetland!

 

Amelia and Dayber at Heck Swamp

 

And so Team Sloth spent days and days in 50 cm (20 inches)—sometimes… depending on where you stood it could be ankle-deep one step and knee-deep the next—of swampy water, staring up into the canopy, desperately trying to spot a backpack on the back of one of the dozen sloths occupying this small plot of beautiful rainforest.

And then, finally, it happened

Team Sloth found Baguette, and for an absolute wonder, she was low down and catchable! Not only that, but while we had been desperately looking for her for all these months, she found herself a mate, got pregnant, and gave birth to an adorable little baby!

 

 

We didn’t name the baby, as Baguette was no longer part of the Urban Sloth Project, but we were so happy to see her thriving in her verdant and protected territory. Baguette didn’t even have to come down out of her tree for the de-backpacking, Deyber was able to quickly climb up and remove the backpack with no added stress for her or for Baguette Jr. (Ok, maybe we did name the baby. We couldn’t help it!)

 

The backpack then and now

 

Another surprise for us during Operation Guerrilla Baguette was finding a tayra sleeping away in a hollow in one of Baguette’s trees… in a stolen sarong! We caught a glimpse of the tayra up in the tree, and surmised that the sarong came from the laundry of the hotel directly behind the tree.

 

A Tayra with a blanket

 

The Adventures of Nacho

The Adventures of Nacho

Nacho, a feisty Hoffmann’s two-fingered Sloth, joined the Urban Sloth Project in May 2021. Nacho was one of the most interesting sloths we monitored during the months he was part of the project.

 

 

He was always surprising us with the places we found him in, the distance he traveled, or the photos tourists and locals post on social media with him.

 

 

Almost as soon as he was collared, Nacho decided he needed a change of scenery, and made the two-week journey from Tasty Waves Cantina into the center of Puerto Viejo de Talamanca, where he has (mostly) remained. In this blog, we’ll recap the adventures of a sloth living in a busy tourist town, and what we learned from it.

 

Troublesome Sloth

Nacho’s first misadventure was when he was picked up by the local rescue center for relocation in July 2021 (3), after he was caught bothering the patrons of a restaurant (2), trying to bite their ankles like a little dog!

 

 

The only upside to this situation was that we were able to conduct a full health check on him and found that his weight in July was almost half a kilogram heavier than in May. This indicates that the collar he was wearing and our research on him had not affected his ability to thrive in his natural habitat.

 

 

Sometimes during this period he also gained a large scar between his eyes that he had not had when we first collared him.

We took this opportunity to fit Nacho with a micro-logger Daily Diary, a.k.a. tracking backpack, which would give us an in-depth view of his behavior and movements for 28 days, and provide invaluable data for the USP.

 

From the swamp in town to the beach bar

After we fitted him with the backpack we released him to a more appropriate spot in his territory near the swamp he had previously spent some time in (4). Nacho must have disagreed with the new spot though, and he decided to move somewhere a little more familiar: another bar (5).

 

 

After a nice wild goose chase through the month of May, Nacho found a home at Stanford’s (6). This made him a very enjoyable sloth to track (and made the Tracking Team a familiar sight in town), while we began to recognize his movements and patterns. It was very encouraging to watch Nacho thrive in spite of the ultra-urban environment that most sloths would avoid.

 

 

The bar he patronized had chosen to maintain the tree connectivity around their establishment—this is a great policy that makes for a nice atmosphere around the bar, as well as preventing erosion by anchoring the sand with the roots of the sea almond trees…which is important when your bar is located on the beach! Not to mention, it looks nice.

 

Problematic Humans

Spotting sloths in sea almond trees is easier than in many of the other trees sloths favor, as sea almonds’ branches are not usually cluttered with other plants and vines. They usually hold only almond leaves and the occasional sloth.

So when Nacho’s backpack signal went stationary (indicating that it had not moved in a while), and there was no sloth in the spot where the signal was coming from, we got worried.

 

 

The signal was coming from a tarpaulin tent, where a nomadic person had been living for many years.

Concern peaked on day four of the unchanging signal when the Tracking Team spotted a sloth who was around the same size and color as Nacho, snoozing in one of Nacho’s favorite spots, doing an excellent impersonation of Nacho in all ways – except he was missing a backpack. We had to find out if this sloth was really Nacho.

Luckily, we had one very defining future of Nacho’s identity: his scar.

Dr. Cliffe herself scaled the palm tree that potential-Nacho was napping in and was able to confirm that it was indeed Nacho resting in the tree—blissfully unaware of the drama occurring around him. It was very clear that this sloth did not have a backpack on, and the signal was still being emitted from the DIY Settlement.

 

Moving On Without a Backpack

While there was some relief that Nacho was not in fact being held hostage, we were presented with a new problem—equipment being stolen off the backs of the Urban Sloths.

The very expensive sloth backpack was useless to anyone other than us, held a month’s worth of important scientific data, and was now gone. Unfortunately, trying to communicate with the person who took the equipment proved futile and fruitless.

 

 

Team Sloth decided to recollar Nacho and performed a quick health check on him. Despite having an eventful month—visiting the rescue center, being fitted with some new tracking hardware, and apparently having been accosted by a man with scissors who stole his backpack—Nacho was doing as good as ever and had even gained some weight.

 

 

For the following months, Nacho remained in the area surrounding the bar and a hostel, finding shelter from the rain in a small lean-to structure. He had a high visibility rate in the months after his ordeal.

In January 2022 we got a case of déjà vu when his tracking signal (this time from a collar and not a backpack) once again was traced to the camp, and once again there was no sign of Nacho.

After a few days of stress and worry on the part of the Tracking Team, Nacho reappeared in exactly the same palm tree as the previous time he had been stolen from. Nacho’s collar was gone.

 

The End of an Era

It was a difficult decision for Team Sloth to retire Nacho from the USP. While the loss of time, money, and research data from the appropriated equipment was large, the deciding factor was Nacho’s welfare.

In order to fit two-fingered sloths with tracking equipment they must first be sedated, which is not a procedure that should be performed lightly in wild animals, as it can cause the animals a great deal of stress.

 

 

Recollaring Nacho would mean a third sedation in less than a year, and the equipment was making Nacho a target for unscrupulous humans. This was not something we could accept for the sake of our research, and we ultimately had to put Nacho’s welfare above all else.

We are happy to say that Nacho has handled his collarings (and de-collarings) with great aplomb and is thriving in his current territory! We are less happy to say that we have not yet gotten our stolen equipment back, but that’s not Nacho’s fault, after all.

We anticipate that without any wearable tech to make him a target for future interference, he will continue to be Puerto Viejo’s unofficial mascot, greeting tourists from his Sea Almonds on the beach, and embodying the spirit of Pura Vida.

What We Learned from Nacho

While there are many questions yet to be answered about Nacho’s lifestyle, and while we gathered valuable data while tracking him, we won’t be able to come to any conclusions about his activities until the end of this long project, when the data from all sloths is collated and analyzed. Not to mention, our treasure trove of data on his movements was never able to be analyzed before being stolen.

 

 

We are surprised at how well adapted Nacho is to his urban habitat. However two-fingered sloths are disproportionally likely to be admitted into rescue centers with injuries from dog attacks, car strikes, and electrocutions.

We don’t know what the future holds for a sloth that lives in a busy town, and although we don’t officially monitor him anymore, we still see Nacho as we run errands in town, and the staff at Stanford’s keeps an eye out for him.

 

 

-Amelia Symeou & Ames Reeder

The Urban Sloth Project

Luna update: February 2022

Luna update: February 2022

2021, The year of Luna with Sol

We added Luna and Sol to the Urban Sloth Project in March 2021. Once Luna was fitted with a collar in March, we were able to track her and baby Sol every day. We estimated baby Sol to be around three or four months old at this time, but sloths are very difficult to age–we were unable to weigh Sol, which is usually the best way to guess a baby sloth’s age.

 

sloths on the ground mom and baby

 

In August we began to see Sol becoming more curious about his surroundings; at first, it was only a limb or two reaching into the liana vines, but one day we came to track them, and we found him sitting next to Luna instead of on her belly!

He wasn’t quite ready to leave Luna entirely, and there was a lot of him going back and forth between his mama and the branches. We felt like proud parents watching little Sol gain his independence.

Becoming independent

By October, we confirmed that baby Sol was all grown up! We had consistently seen him separate from his mother, until one day they were no longer sharing the same tree.

In most mammals, once the parents raise the young to independence, the young are expected to disperse and find their own territory. With sloths, once the baby is ready, the mother leaves them with a portion of her own territory and moves on herself.

 

Baby Sol

We were able to witness this with Sol, to whom Luna left her very favorite tree, while she moved further south. Luna moved all the way to the other side of the lot they occupied, leaving the tree she raised her baby on to her grown-up boy.  According to our calculations, Sol gained independence at 10 months old.

 

December: Sol is finally grown up

We still tracked Luna every day, but with no radio collar, it has been hard to find Sol! We have seen him around a few times in his little territory that borders his mother’s, but if he decided to make a big move we probably wouldn’t know about it. Luna has continued to thrive in the new, more southerly portion of her territory, which she shares with a number of other sloths.

One Saturday in mid-December, when the tracking team went out to find Luna, they instead found massive deforestation occurring, with chainsaws and bulldozers cutting down their trees. Happily, the community made a big protest about this, the tree felling was stopped, and has not resumed while the relevant authorities are looking into it.

 

deforestation

A new year, a new baby!

We’ve been waiting for it ever since Sol moved on to find his own territory, and the day has finally arrived: Luna has a new baby! Baby Celeste was born in the last week of January (2022), and is sooo tiny!

 

Luna and her new baby, Celeste. Can you spot the antenna?

 

Luna probably went into heat and conceived shortly after Sol started independently exploring in August. Although we are not precisely sure of the gestation period of three-fingered sloths, we estimate it is approximately six months. Researchers have not yet had the opportunity to observe a three-fingered sloth during the entirety of her pregnancy, so this gestation period is still being determined.

 

sloth mom and baby
We think Luna is quite young, but as it is nearly impossible to determine the age of a wild sloth (until we can afford some telomere analysis) we are mostly guessing. She does not have the full complement of green algae on her fur that would indicate a completely mature fur ecosystem, but she does have a nice patchwork of browns and greys that is quite fetching.

 

Luna’s territory is a good one for sloths

Or it would be if they’d stop cutting down the trees. Several three-fingered mothers are known to inhabit the area. Thus when Sarah stopped by Luna’s territory while covering a shift for Ames (who was quarantined with Covid) she did not immediately recognize the mama sloth with a days-old baby velcroed to her side as our lady Luna.

 

sloths in guarumo after deforestation
Luna shares her territory with more sloths.

 

Since the area’s deforestation in December it’s not unusual to find crowds of tourists gathered around the lone guarumo trees, watching and snapping pictures of the half dozen three-fingered sloths that can be seen on any given day. When the crowds are looking up, we know everything is in order and the Sloth Star of the Day is high in the trees and safe. When the crowds are looking down at the ground, we know there is most likely a sloth trying to get somewhere, and it’s time to intervene. The intervention consists of politely explaining to people that the sloths are not here to meet them and asking the tourists to give them a little space so the sloths can get where they are going.

This is what was happening on a Friday when Sarah spotted a crowd and went to see whether the sloth needed an advocate or not. The sloth in question was crawling across an obstacle course of felled trees and organic debris, trying to get from one tree island to the next.

 

 

At first, Sarah was quite confident that no, this was not Luna–because look at that tiny baby!–but once she pulled out her own phone camera she was able to zoom in and see the antenna of Luna’s tracking collar. Our favorite mom was a mother all over again.

Sarah got some great footage to use as evidence that reforesting and bridge-building in this part of the maritime zone needs to be made a priority, because who can resist helping out baby sloths?

At least now we know why Luna disappeared on us for a few days; clearly, she just wanted some peace and quiet to deliver her new daughter, currently weighing in at around 300 g. That’s about 10 oz, or about two average-sized smartphones. (For the record, we don’t actually know that the baby is a girl. Right now we’re guessing, and we figured since we called her last baby a boy we needed to even up the gender ratio a bit.)

Though he won’t contribute much to raising little Celeste, we think we know who the father is, as there is only one mature male in Luna’s territory. We don’t have a name for him, but maybe his newest daughter will grow up to look like him!

The babies of Luna

The sex of the babies will remain a mystery for some time as all genitalia are hidden internally in three-fingered sloths. The best and least invasive way to determine male from female is to look out for the brightly colored speculum that develops on all male Bradypus sloths (with the exception of the maned sloths). Unfortunately, the speculum does not develop until sexual maturity (at approximately two years old) which means that it can be difficult to know the sex of sloths before this point.

 

-SloCo Team

Searching for the Elusive Maned Sloths of Brazil

Searching for the Elusive Maned Sloths of Brazil

If you are a fan of sloths, you might think that there are two main types:

  1. Two-fingered sloths with their blonde fur and quintessential pig-like noses. There are two different species within the Choloepus genus.
  2. Three-fingered sloths with their mottled grey fur and iconic black ‘masks’ around the eyes. There are currently four different species of three-fingered sloth all grouped together within the Bradypus genus. 

But scientists are starting to realize that there is actually a third type of sloth. One that has the size, strength, and ferocity of a two-fingered sloth, but the physical appearance of a three-fingered sloth.

 

maned sloth brazil
Photo: Cecilia Pamich – The Sloth Conservation Foundation

 

It is a species that no one really knows anything about, and one that scientists think is so unique that it might belong in a completely separate genus (called Scaeopus).

These are the maned sloths of Brazil, and they are the most endangered species among the continental sloths. 

What are maned sloths? 

Maned sloths (Bradypus torquatus) are technically a species of three-fingered sloth, but they look and behave very differently to the three-fingered sloths that you might be used to.

Current research suggests that they separated off from the other sloth species approximately 19 million years ago and have been evolving independently ever since. 

 

maned sloth taxonomy brazil
Current Taxonomy and phylogenetics of Xenarthrans. The green circle shows the moment when maned sloths split off from the other species of three-fingered sloths / Image: Professor Gastón Giné

 

Unlike the other species of three-fingered sloths, the maned sloths are much larger with brown, fuzzy fur, and dark, hairless pads on their hands and feet (similar to the hands of two-fingered sloths).

 

maned sloth hand feet brazil
The hand and foot of a maned sloth. /Photos: Cecilia Pamich – The Sloth Conservation Foundation

 

They lack the iconic black mask around the eyes and male maned sloths do not develop a speculum.

 

maned sloth brazil

Instead, both males and females of this species have spectacular long black manes of hair that tumble down around their necks and shoulders.

Maned sloth brazil
Maned Sloth with a GPS backpack / Photo: Cecilia Pamich/ Sloth Conservation Foundation

 

Working together to save sloths

While our SloCo headquarters are based in Costa Rica, we are committed to conserving and protecting all 6 extant species of sloth that are found throughout South and Central America. 

Last month we were delighted to form an exciting new collaboration with Professor Gaston Giné and the Instituto Tamandua in Brazil to carry out important new research into maned sloth ecology.  

 

Maned sloth brazil
Professor Gastón Giné putting a GPS backpack on a maned sloth

 

Professor Gaston Giné has been researching maned sloths for over 10 years and much of what we know today about these sloths stems from the results of his work. He is a professor and researcher at the Applied Ecology and Conservation Lab of the Santa Cruz State University’s Biological Sciences department, and a research collaborator of the Instituto Tamandua.

Instituto Tamandua is a Non-Governmental Organization that works directly in the research and conservation of all Xenarthra species in Brazil (sloths, anteaters, and armadillos). Flavia Miranda, the founder and director of Instituto Tamandua, is the deputy chair of the IUCN Anteater, Sloth, and Armadillo Specialist Group.

Together with Professor Gaston Giné, Instituto Tamandua coordinates research into the maned sloths. 

 

Instituto tamandua
Flavia Miranda, founder of Instituto Tamandua, working with her team on a Giant Anteater in Brazil. Her research in the past 15 years has been very important for the conservation of sloths, armadillos, and anteaters, including the discovery of 6 new species of silky anteaters!/ Photo: Facebook Instituto Tamandua

Due to the ongoing impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, funding for wildlife research and conservation has become scarce as government resources are directed elsewhere. This crisis has left maned sloth research and conservation projects in Brazil vulnerable and in danger of running out of resources. 

Thanks to the generous support of our donors, we are happy to have been able to provide funding for 10 new state-of-the-art GPS sloth backpacks that will be used by Gaston Giné and the Instituto Tamandua to continue their important work and better understand the ecological requirements, habitat preference, and movement patterns of this vulnerable species. 

 

Maned sloth brazil
Professor Gastón Giné releasing a maned sloth with a GPS backpack.

Team Sloth travels to Brazil 

In March 2021, SloCo founder Dr. Rebecca Cliffe travelled to Brazil with two other members of Team Sloth (Cecilia Pamich and Patricio Silfeni), to deliver the new GPS backpacks and learn more about the maned sloths.

They travelled to the Reserva de Sapiranga, near Praia do Forte, where they met up with Gaston, his son Caian, and professional tree climber (and expert sloth spotter) Cosme Guimarães a.k.a. Coy.

 

maned sloth reserva sapiranga
One of the rangers helping with the radio tracking of maned sloths.

 

For 7 days the team spent from sunrise until sunset hiking through the reserve searching for the elusive maned sloths. Some sloths were already being monitored by Gaston and needed to have their old backpacks replaced, but a lot of the sloths were new additions to the project.

 

Maned sloth brazil
It took almost 2 hours to spot this sloth. The signal from his radio collar was strong, but he was impossible to see until he moved into the open.

 

Every time a sloth was found, Coy would quickly scale the tree and carry the sloth safely down to the ground where important body measurement data would be collected by the team. The new backpack would be fitted, and a brightly colored ribbon would be attached to the back to act as a visual marker for identification.

 

Maned sloth brazil
This individual was identified as ‘Pablo’ and has a bright yellow ribbon on his backpack.

 

maned sloths brazil
 Neither the backpack nor the ribbon interfere with the activities of the sloth.

The sloths didn’t need to be anesthetized for the procedure as it was quick and simple, but it was necessary to use special Velcro mittens to cover the fingers and toes to prevent injury to the team.

 

Maned sloth brazil
Professor Gaston Giné and Dr. Rebecca Cliffe taking measurements. Velcro mittens are being used for safety.

 

During the course of the week, they managed to put GPS backpacks on 8 maned sloths (and mistakenly tried to capture a lot of termite nests that looked suspiciously like sloths)! 

 

maned sloth
Sapiranga reserve. The pale green dot was our base, and the yellow dots were the areas where we found the sloths.

Silent Rainforests

During their time in Brazil, the team were eager to learn more about the conservation problems being faced by maned sloths and to see how they could provide more help in the future.  

Having come from Costa Rica (where sloths are literally falling from the trees and climbing through people’s houses), they were shocked to discover how few maned sloths there were inhabiting the Brazilian forest reserves.

The maned sloths they found were also all very shy, hiding at the tops of the tallest trees and moving higher when they heard the sound of approaching humans. This is in stark contrast to the sloths in Costa Rica that tend to ignore people completely and often wander unfearfully into urban areas (and therefore get themselves into trouble). 

 

Maned sloth brazil

 

Finally, and perhaps most shockingly, the team were spooked by the eerie silence that followed them through the rainforest reserve where they were working. Upon entering a Costa Rican forest, you will reliably be greeted by the deafening hum of insects, screeching of parrots, and howling of monkeys. The rainforest feels and sounds alive. In the Reserva de Sapiranga of Brazil, the rainforest felt and sounded empty.  

 

atlantic forest maned sloth brazil
The Atlantic Forest (Mata Atlantica) has suffered the impacts of human development.

 

At first, they thought this difference was perhaps normal: the Atlantic forests are drier than the wet, humid rainforests of Costa Rica and so biodiversity is understandably different.  But as the week progressed, it became apparent that poaching and human disturbances are big problems in this region. The team stumbled across several different poaching traps, and they noticed platforms that had been erected in trees where poachers would hide. 

 

Why are maned sloths endangered? 

While it is unlikely that people go out specifically to hunt sloths, it is known that sloths are opportunistically poached for food in some areas (on a recent trip to Guyana we discovered that sloth meat is regularly sold in illegal markets there).

Over time, it seems likely that opportunistic poaching may have contributed to the shy nature and low numbers of maned sloths remaining in the wild. However, this is certainly not the only problem. 

Maned sloths have a very restricted range – they can only be found in a small strip of forest on the Atlantic coast of Brazil. Over 93% of these Atlantic forests have been lost in recent years due to deforestation for cattle pastures and plantations of sugar cane, cocoa, coffee, and eucalyptus.

maned sloth distribuition
Maned Sloth Distribution / Image: Instituto Tamandua – Ivy Nunes

 

As a result, maned sloths are severely affected by habitat loss, and the remaining forest reserves where they live are extremely fragmented and isolated. 

 

maned sloth habitat
The area surrounding the Sapiranga Reserve shows high levels of deforestation.

How to help the maned sloths

In order to safeguard a future for the remaining maned sloth populations, a multifaceted conservation approach that engages and empowers local communities is required. 

An important first step in the development of any conservation strategy is to properly understand the biological and ecological requirements of the species that you are trying to conserve. Without this knowledge, any attempt to mitigate the problems will likely be ineffective and short-lived. 

We are hopeful that the GPS technology that we have provided will help to increase current knowledge about maned sloths, and we look forward to developing further conservation strategies with our partners in Brazil to help maned sloths in the future. 

 

team sloth brazil
Cecilia Pamich, Cosme Guimarães, Gastón Giné, Rebecca Cliffe, and Patricio Silfeni after a full day of sloth scouting and backpacking.

 

We would like to say a special thank you to Professor Gastón Giné, Instituto Tamandua, Applied Ecology and Conservation Lab of the Santa Cruz State University’s Biological Sciences department, Prefeitura de Mata de São João, the rangers of Sapiranga Reserve, and all the lovely people that shared their knowledge and experiences with us throughout our trip!

 

maned sloth team

 

-Rebecca Cliffe

Founder and Executive Director

 

Urban Sloth Project: the impacts of habitat disturbance

Urban Sloth Project: the impacts of habitat disturbance

The Urban Sloth Project is a long-term investigation into the impacts of habitat disturbance and rainforest urbanization on the behavior of wild sloths in Costa Rica.

Many people believe that Costa Rica is the best place in the world for seeing sloths – and for good reason; you are almost guaranteed to see a sloth if you visit this tiny Central American country!

Unfortunately, we suspect that this is a sign of a much bigger problem.

 

social distance sloths
A group of tourists keeping a proper distance from the sloth at Puerto Viejo de Talamanca, South Caribbean.

 

Sloths in healthy environments are hard to see

In an ideal situation, sloths would live in primary rainforests, where the multi-story canopy interlocks and trees are shrouded in extensive epiphyte growth. In this environment, sloths are perfectly camouflaged and become practically invisible, hiding in the dense foliage at the top of gigantic trees.

Unfortunately, the remaining primary rainforests are dwindling as deforestation escalates, and sloths no longer have access to their preferred habitats. They are being forced to exist in increasingly urbanized environments, and here they cannot hide!

 

find the sloth

 

Sloths are slow-moving, habitual animals and are therefore very sensitive to changes in the environment. They are unable to run or jump to traverse gaps between trees, and so habitat fragmentation creates a lot of problems.

While trying to navigate an increasingly urbanized world, sloths are being electrocuted on powerlines, attacked by dogs, hit by cars, and exploited by humans.

 

sloth problem
A sloth trying to navigate an increasingly urbanized world. Photo was taken in the South Caribbean of Costa Rica. 

 

Sloths in Costa Rica are now considered to be of conservation concern due to habitat loss from agriculture, livestock production, and the increasing urbanization of the rainforest. In line with this, sloths are the most frequently admitted species to rescue centers in Costa Rica.

 

find the sloth
A healthy rainforest environment and the sloths’ preferred habitat

A massive lack of information on wild sloth behavior

Such a lack of knowledge makes it very challenging for us to develop effective methods to conserve sloths – it is very difficult to protect something that you don’t know anything about!

For two-fingered sloths, in particular, even basic data on the natural history and ecological requirements of the species is lacking. For example, information on the habitat preference, ranging patterns, population densities, diet, and reproductive behavior of this genus is incredibly scarce, and for some sloth species, is completely absent.

 

two fingered toed sloth
There is a massive lack of information on the ecology of wild two-fingered sloths

 

With current extinction rates indicating that we are in the midst of sixth mass extinction, a lack of knowledge covering the basic ecological requirements of a species is of concern due to the profound implications for the development of future conservation strategies.

Monitoring 32 sloths

The Urban Sloth Project aims to compare the behavior and activity budgets of sloths living in highly urbanized areas with those sloths living in healthier environments (protected primary rainforests).

Over the next 5 years, we will be tracking and monitoring 32 sloths (16 three-fingered sloths, and 16 two-fingered sloths) using VHF radio collars and compact data loggers. The results will be used to develop effective conservation strategies that will help humans and sloths peacefully coexist.

 

The data collected will help us to determine:

  • Amount of time spent active vs inactive.
  • Amount of time spent engaging in different behaviors.
  • Home range size.
  • Distance traveled per day.
  • Dietary preferences.
  • Amount of time spent traveling in the canopy vs traveling on the ground.
  • Circadian rhythm of activity – How sloth activity is impacted by the environmental conditions (temperature, humidity, wind speed, rainfall, moon phase).
sharon urban sloth
Sharon is the first sloth collared for the Urban Sloth Project. She was rescued on the side of a road while being harassed by a dog.

To protect sloths, we must first understand them

The knowledge we gain from this project will enable SloCo to make meaningful changes to the lives of sloths living in rapidly changing environments. For example, we will be able to identify which tree species are most important for sloths living in urban areas, and we can make sure that these species are protected and replenished.

We will also be able to identify areas where canopy connectivity needs to be improved to aid sloth dispersal via the installation of wildlife bridges and through targeted reforestation efforts.

You can follow The Urban Sloth Project through our social media platforms (Facebook, Instagram, or Youtube), and also by becoming a Very Important Partner with a monthly subscription to support this project!

This project is only possible due to the generosity and kindness of our supporters – thank you for being a part of Team Sloth!

 

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Being a giant sloth in an ancient wetland

Being a giant sloth in an ancient wetland

Thirteen million years ago, when giant ground sloths roamed the Earth, a vast wetland known as the Pebas Mega-Wetland System extended across northernwestern South America. This network of rivers and swamps was home to a variety of large fauna: caimans and crocodiles over 10m in length, turtles 3.5m in diameter, rodents the size of buffalos, and of course giant ground sloths!

Paleontologists believe that these giant crocodilians preyed upon the ground sloths. However, evidence of a stand-off between these ancient giants is extremely rare, making a recent discovery of the remains of ground sloth in the Peruvian Amazon even more remarkable!

The Peruvian Amazon/Photo: Wikimedia Commons by Martin St-Amant

Searching for clues from the past

Paleontologists recently found compelling evidence of this predator-prey relationship, when they revealed an incredible specimen: the tibia of the giant ground sloth (Pseudoprepotherium) covered with 46 large teeth marks. Given the shape and size of the punctures, which were much too large for the other crocodilian species living in the area, scientists concluded that the attacker was a juvenile or sub-adult giant caiman (Purussaurus). Even as a juvenile, the giant caiman was estimated to be a whopping 4 meters (13 feet) long!

ancient
Artist’s rendition of an ancient giant caiman (Purussaurus), the top predator of Miocene swamps in South America (person added for scale) /Image: Wikimedia Commons – Nobu Tamura (http://spinops.blogspot.com)

 

The pattern of bite marks suggests that the caiman attacked the sloth’s hind limb from below – much like their modern-day descendants do today.

 

ancient sloth
Artist’s rendition of a giant caiman (Purussaurus) attacking a giant ground sloth (Pseudoprepotherium)./Image by Jorge A. González

The importance of wetlands to modern-day sloths

Although modern-day sloths have taken to the trees, wetlands still play an important role in their lives. From swamps to mangrove forests, these watery ecosystems are rich habitats for sloths. Low-lying marshy areas in Costa Rica are often filled with sangrillo trees – one of the sloth’s favorite trees that we grow in our forest nursery. The name “sangrillo” comes from the Spanish word “sangre” which means blood, because the sap of the tree is a dark red color.

 

pygmy sloth
Pygmy sloth in the mangrove forests of Isla Escudo de Veraguas, Panama/Photo: Suzi Eszterhas

 

Ancient ground sloths had the ability to stand on their hind feet, towering at an impressive 12 feet tall. Lacking this ability, how do modern tree-dwelling sloths navigate wetlands? Well, as it turns out, sloths are remarkably good swimmers, moving 3x as fast in water than on land.

 

Three-fingered sloth (Bradypus variegatus) swimming across a river in Limon, Costa Rica/Photo: Suzi Eszterhas

Moreover, since these soggy areas are difficult to develop and prone to flooding, they are often the last refuges left for sloths and other types of vulnerable wildlife.

The importance of wetlands to humanity

Swamps, marshes, mangroves, mudflats, lagoons, peatlands, bogs are all ecosystems that fall under the umbrella of what constitutes a wetland. A wetland is any area of land where water covers the ground, temporarily or at all times of the year. Many wetlands have the undeserved reputation of being smelly, inaccessible places that provide little to humanity.

 

mangrooves sloth ancient
Mangroves of Australia at low tide/Photo: by hbieser on PixaBay

 

Wetlands provide food and shelter to a vast array of species, including us. They protect our coasts from the buffering of waves, reduce the severity of floods, absorb pollution, and purify our water resources. They are essential to the health of our fisheries, serving as “nurseries” for many types of fish that feed our coastal communities. In addition to fish, wetlands provide rice for 3.5 billion people globally.

Wetlands are also important allies in our fight against climate change, with mangroves and sea grasses absorbing 40-50x more carbon than other terrestrial forests.

 

mangroove wetland
Mangrove forest/Photo: By sippakorn at Pixabay

In addition to the life-giving resources they provide, wetlands sustain our economy. More than a billion people depend on wetlands for income. Moreover, the services they provide for free would cost US $47 trillion a year –  making them the most valuable type of ecosystem.

Given how underappreciated wetlands are for all the gifts they bestow, it is understandable why many people find it so tempting to fill them. However, the ecological functions that wetlands provide disappear with the rising land. And inevitably the water will return, flooding the buildings and towns that were built upon the muddy ground.

 

Two-fingered sloth (Choloepus hoffmanni) in Cahuita, Costa Rica/Photo: Suzi Eszterhas

 

Appreciating wetlands means recognizing all the services that they provide for us and the many unique creatures that live there. Globally, 40% of Earth’s species live and reproduce in wetlands and 25% of all species live in coral reefs. Every year, 200 new species of fish are discovered in freshwater wetlands. Conserving wetlands means ensuring a healthy future for these species (and us) for many generations to come.

 

-Katra Laidlaw

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Three-fingered sloth ‘adopts’ a two-fingered sloth baby!

Three-fingered sloth ‘adopts’ a two-fingered sloth baby!

These two sloths are not only different species, but they belong to two completely different families, separated by over 30 million years of evolution. Cross-species adoptions like this are incredibly rare in the wild, with only 3 other documented observations of this happening.

Three-fingered sloth 'adopts' a two-fingered sloth baby
Copyright: Oscar Solano Rojas

What happened?

On the 20th December 2020, Gerald Pereira and Oscar Solano Rojas were guiding a group of tourists in Costa Rica. Sloths are a common sight on these tours, but that day they saw something that they had never seen before – nestled quietly amongst the rainforest canopy they spotted an adult three-fingered female tending to a two-fingered baby sloth.

Gerald and Oscar, both with over 11 years of experience working as ecotourism guides, knew they had witnessed something important.

 

Three-fingered sloth 'adopts' a two-fingered sloth baby
Copyright: Oscar Solano Rojas

The curious pair were observed in a fragmented strip of rainforest, sandwiched between a river, a pineapple plantation and a busy road. According to Oscar, “in that area, local people take great care of the sloths, so we always go to look there because there is a very large population”.

“Yesterday we started the tour, which we call the ‘Sloth Tour’, as usual. To see them active in the early hours of the day, we started the tour at 6am. Around 8am we arrived at a place where my partner Gerald and I saw a sloth hanging from a Cecropia tree. At first, it did not attract much attention, we saw that she was a female and a baby, but that morning we had already seen 3 baby sloths, and we did not think it was anything special or different from what we had seen. When we paid more attention to them, however, we discovered that it was a three-fingered female and a two-fingered baby.”

Three-fingered sloth 'adopts' a two-fingered sloth baby
Photo credit: Oscar Solano Rojas

“I had already seen the two species in the same tree many times, and at first we thought it was just a coincidence that they were there together. When we found them it seemed like they were waking up. They both started scratching, and then the baby separated from the female, fed on cecropia leaves a little, and I thought that was the end of the interaction.”

“But then you see how the baby returns to the female, and she receives it with total naturalness, that is what surprised us the most. None of us who were there could believe it, neither Gerald nor I, because we had never seen it before. It left me astonished. In rescue centres, I had seen a certain attachment between the two species, but never in their natural habitat, as happened to us yesterday.”

Three-fingered sloth 'adopts' a two-fingered sloth baby
Copyright: Oscar Solano Rojas

As can be seen in the video footage captured by Gerald and Oscar, it does indeed appear that the two sloths interact with the gentle tenderness of a mother-baby relationship. When they returned to the area the next day, they once again found the pair snuggling together in a shady spot in the canopy. It certainly looks like the bond between these two sloths is much more than just a fleeting interaction. It appears as though the female has formally adopted this baby as her own.

Three-fingered sloth 'adopts' a two-fingered sloth baby
Copyright: Oscar Solano Rojas

Odd Alliances

Adult animals adopting unrelated young is nothing new to science, but in most cases these are intraspecies interactions – meaning that they occur between two unrelated individuals of the same species. This has most commonly been observed within sociable species, often herd or pack animals.

Interspecies adoptions – where a female adopts a baby of a different species – is an altogether much rarer occurrence in the wild. In fact, there have only ever been 3 other documented instances of this happening, and it has never before been observed in sloths. 

In 2004, a group of capuchin monkeys were documented caring for a baby marmoset, and in 2014 a bottlenose dolphin adopted a baby melon-headed whale and nurtured it for it for 3 years. More recently, a lioness in India was found to have adopted an orphaned leopard cub in 2018 and she raised it alongside her own offspring.

Why do cross-species adoptions occur?

In evolutionary terms, caring for another animal’s offspring like this doesn’t make much sense. Raising a baby demands a lot of time and energy (something which a sloth has a limited supply of), and it is usually done with the purpose of propagating an individual’s own genes. So why do cross-species adoptions like this sometimes happen?

The truth is, scientists are still trying to understand it. Because these events are so rare, there isn’t much information available and each observed case appears to be very different. There are two popular theories:

  1. Instinct: A lot of adult female animals are biologically hardwired through evolution to care for helpless infants. A cross-species adoption might occur accidentally after a female has recently given birth herself, when high levels of the hormone oxytocin encourage her to bond with the orphaned baby (even if it isn’t hers!).
  • Mutual benefit: If the benefits of the raising an unrelated baby outweigh the costs, this could explain why some interspecies adoptions take place. For example, it could be beneficial for a group of animals to add a new individual that would help to secure more food, or provide added protection. In some social species the simple benefit of companionship may be a driving force! This is unlikely to be an important factor for our solitary sloths though.

 

Lioness, Nosikitok, nurses a leopard cub in the Ngorongoro conservation area in Tanzania
Lioness, Nosikitok, nurses a leopard cub in the Ngorongoro conservation area in Tanzania. Photograph: Joop van der Linde/AP

How did this happen?

The circumstances surrounding this adoption are not entirely clear, but SloCo founder and sloth expert Dr. Rebecca Cliffe has some ideas about what might have led to this unusual event.

“This is the first time that anything like this has ever been seen before in wild sloths, and it is certainly very interesting. I am used to sloths surprising us, but this has to be one of the most unusual things I have heard about. I suspect there are three possible scenarios which may have led to this happening:

1) Accidental human interference. Maybe someone found the baby sloth alone and tried to ‘reunite’ it with its mother, but accidentally paired it with the wrong sloth. Reuniting baby sloths with their mothers is a surprisingly common requirement for people in Costa Rica as babies are often found alone on the ground after falling from the tree.

A lot of people don’t realise that there are two very different types of sloth, and so they might not have realised what they were doing. In this situation, however, I would expect the adult sloth to reject the baby and so this feels like an unlikely scenario

Three-fingered sloth 'adopts' a two-fingered sloth baby!
Copyright: Oscar Solano Rojas

2) The baby sloth lost it’s own mother, and instinctively clung onto the fur of another sloth. Baby sloths are born with a strong instinct to cling onto mom’s fur, and if they are separated, they tend to cling onto the next best thing. It isn’t impossible to think that this baby may have climbed onto the three-fingered sloth after becoming orphaned. However, in this situation I would also expect to see the adult sloth looking agitated and stressed out by her new uninvited companion – and I doubt the relationship would last more than a few hours.

Three-fingered sloth 'adopts' a two-fingered sloth baby!
Copyright: Oscar Solano Rojas

 

3) The baby sloth lost its own mother, and the adult sloth recently lost a baby of her own. This unusual combination of events would provide a feasible opportunity for the pair to bond naturally due to a mixture of instincts and hormones. Although extremely rare, I think this is probably the most likely scenario!”

 

Three-fingered sloth 'adopts' a two-fingered sloth baby!
Copyright: Oscar Solano Rojas

 

What happens next?

This unprecedented behavior leaves all of us with many questions – particularly regarding the welfare of both sloths! Will the baby survive? It’s certainly possible. While they are different species, they do share a broadly similar ecology.

The diets of both sloths overlap heavily, with both being predominantly folivorous (eating only leaves). Two-fingered sloths tend to be more flexible and adaptive with their choices, while three-fingered sloths are more selective about what types of leaf they will eat. With both species, babies maternally inherit knowledge about which trees are safe to feed from – and this arrangement may work in the baby’s favor!

Three-fingered sloth 'adopts' a two-fingered sloth baby!
Copyright: Oscar Solano Rojas

Furthermore, it appears as though the baby sloth is approximately 7 months old. At this age, the baby would not be as reliant upon a steady source of milk from the mother as the natural weaning process would be taking place. Although the adult female could be producing milk, we don’t think this is essential for the survival of the baby at this stage.

Two-fingered sloths are also much larger than their three-fingered counterparts when fully grown, which means that the adoptive mother may have a challenge on her hands when lugging around her overgrown offspring.

Three-fingered sloth 'adopts' a two-fingered sloth baby!
Copyright: Oscar Solano Rojas

But what happened to the baby’s biological mother? This remains a mystery. Considering the location in which the pair were observed is highly disturbed, it may be that she got into trouble with the busy road or nearby pineapple plantation. Or perhaps there was an accidental baby mix-up, and somewhere in the rainforest, a mother two-fingered sloth is tenderly nurturing a baby three-fingered sloth. It’s doubtful we will ever know for sure.

While there are certainly a lot of challenges for this pair to overcome, here at SloCo we have high hopes for their survival. After the unprecedented global difficulties that 2020 has brought, we are happy to embrace this heart-warming story (which has all the makings of a future Disney movie!).

 

 

We will be working closely with both Gerald and Oscar to monitor the two sloths as time goes on – we will keep you updated on their progress! For now, we are keeping our fingers and toes crossed for a happy ending.

2021 Update:

It’s with a heavy heart that we must inform our supporters that the wild three-fingered sloth mom that was found to be caring for a two-fingered baby has passed away.

Local guides who were tracking the pair witnessed the mom and baby fall from their tree. Unfortunately, mom did not survive the fall. The baby was uninjured and climbed back up into the tree.

The guides continued to watch over the baby for the rest of the evening, and returned to the spot every day to check on him – but after three days he had ventured off on his own into the rainforest.

We estimate that the baby was around 8 months old, at which point he would naturally begin to distance himself from his mom. Team Sloth is optimistic that his two brilliant sloth moms taught him everything that he needs to know in order to survive in the wild!

 

-Sloth Team

 

The ‘mummified’ skin of a giant sloth proves that they coexisted with the first humans of South America

The ‘mummified’ skin of a giant sloth proves that they coexisted with the first humans of South America

Although it was on display for a long time at the Museum of La Plata, Argentina, its age was uncertain. A new study indicates that giant ground sloths lived 13,000 years ago and coexisted with the first humans of South America.

The mummified skin of the mylodon was found on a scientific expedition organized in 1899 by the Museo de La Plata (UNLP). Mylodons were an extinct genus of animals that lived during the Pleistocene, a period that ranged from approximately 2.5 million to 10 thousand years ago.

Since it was first discovered in 1899, it has remained on exhibit. The artifact is a true treasure considering its surprising degree of preservation: it still has hairs and soft parts. After extensive discussions about its age, this remarkably preserved skin lost the interest of paleontologists until recently when a group of experts resumed studying it and dated it again. This time they used sophisticated techniques that left no room for doubt: the owner of that tissue lived about 13,200 years ago. This discovery has just been published in the journal Quaternary Science Reviews.

Secretos de una joya del Museo de La Plata: científicos del CONI
Leandro Pérez, one of the researchers, next to the showcase where the skin is exhibited. Photo: courtesy of researchers.

The skin of the giant sloth

The giant sloth – the common name for this genus – was one of the largest land animals in South America, weighing more than 1 ton and measuring 3 meters (almost 10 feet) in length. It had huge claws and walked on all fours, although it is thought that it could also stand on its hind feet (bipedal). With its herbivorous habits, it was part of the South American megafauna, the large mammals that dominated the planet during the Pleistocene.

The skin was found in the Cueva del Milodon (Milodon’s cave), a natural formation located in southern Chile that was explored in the late 19th century. The cave contains countless paleontological remains, and even evidence of early human activity. At that time the geographic limits of Argentina were still being established, which allowed for expeditions of many different origins to go and collect materials. As the story goes, when Argentinian naturalist Florentino Ameghino first saw the remains, he assumed that they belonged to a living species. This led him on an impassioned quest to find a living specimen, which of course did not happen.

giant sloth skin
Photo: Courtesy researchers

“The skin is really striking: it is a centimeter and a half thick with long reddish-yellow hairs and it is hard like wood. In what would be the interior, it is covered by a ton of small bones, similar to a suit of armor, which is typical of some species of fossilized sloths,” explains Néstor Toledo, CONICET (National Council for Scientific and Technical Research) researcher on the Faculty of Natural Sciences and Museum of the National University of La Plata (FCNyM, UNLP) and one of the authors of the work.

The scientific process

First dated in 1974 with questionable results, the team of scientists sent a sample back to the same radiocarbon laboratory in the United States that had done the original analysis. They used a method to determine the age of carbon-containing materials and this time it was clear that that the sample was over 13,000 years old. The authors of the study also sent a fragment of skull bone from the same cave to an Argentinian laboratory which turned out to be 11,300 years old. This was the same age of two bone tools carved by ancient humans that were found next to the sloth hide, according to the original reports of the find.

The specialists also examined two sloth shoulder blades, one belonging to the local collection and the other belonging to the Zurich Museum of Natural Sciences. These bone pieces, which were dated between 12 and 13 thousand years old, have cut marks on made by tools and evidence of them being dragged across the ground. “This constitutes indirect evidence of human presence, that of course must continue to be studied, but it is an indisputable proof of coexistence with human beings and, if verified, it would be one of the oldest records in South America,” says Leandro M. Pérez, CONICET researcher at the FCNyM and leading author of the publication. This question takes on a special interest considering the debate on whether or not this giant fauna coexisted with these first settlers.

giant sloth skin
Photo: Courtesy researchers

In addition to the new ages obtained, the investigation includes an exhaustive review of  the dating methods of all the mylodon remains found in that same cave which appear in the scientific literature. Starting with the first of them, carried out in 1951 by Williard Libby, the winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1960 and creator of the radiocarbon method, they verified a total of 36 records, discarding those that were unsuccessful or uncertain.

“We have taken on the monumental job of searching for each published piece of information, tracking the sample it refers to, and calling the laboratory in charge of dating it to trace a match between these references. We found some errors and we left only those reliable historical values,” ​​Pérez explains, and adds:” It is not that before they worked badly, but that the protocols that we use today did not exist at the time. For example, they didn’t understand the importance of including a photo or a drawing of a material or assigning it a catalog number in the collection.

Interesting questions

As a final reflection, the researchers highlighted two important values ​​of their work. “On the one hand, there is interest on the climatological level, since it was a time of intermittent glaciations. Despite the very harsh conditions due to the cold and the amount of ice, this cave was inhabited continuously for at least a thousand years, according to our bibliographic review. For this reason, it raises countless questions about how this fauna could have evolved, which in the case of the ancient sloths were gigantic and woolly, while their current relatives are small and live hanging from the trees in tropical jungles,” argues Toledo.

Secretos de una joya del Museo de La Plata: científicos del CONI

Pérez alluded to a second relevant question, related to “the importance of valuing the heritage we have and the way the naturalists worked at that time, people who traveled to distant and hostile places without even knowing if they would return alive. Many museums in the world have pieces from this site because they were bought from collectors. But on the other hand, very few, like ours, have materials recovered in scientific expeditions organized and led by researchers from the institution.”

carlos ameghino
Fiorentino Ameghino, considered the first Argentinian paleontologist, and team in one of their expeditions.

Mummification: yes or no?

Although there is talk of “mummified” skin, in reality it is unclear if the term exactly applies to the way the famous “sloth leather” was preserved. “It is not how one might imagine an Inca or Egyptian mummy, subjected to a series of deliberate treatments to preserve it in this way. There was no dehydration here because the cave was terribly cold and humid, and it wasn’t from freezing either.

What took place was a more complex process. Right now we are carrying out a chemical analysis on some of the microcrystal sheaths that cover each hair, that we saw through electron microscopy,” described the authors, who speak of a kind of “natural tanning.” The material was buried under a meter-thick layer of manure that was compacted, and therefore lacked oxygen. “We think that the excrement produced the release of tannins, chemical compounds that are used to tan leather, and that spontaneously triggered the process,” concluded the experts.

 

-By Mercedes Benialgo, CONICET La Plata

Leandro M.Pérez, Néstor Toledo, Florencia Mari, Ignacio Echeverría, Eduardo P. Tonni, Marcelo J.Toledo. Quaternary Science Reviews. Radiocarbon dates of fossil record assigned to mylodontids (Xenarthra – Folivora) found in Cueva del Milodón, Chile. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.quascirev.2020.106695.

 

Sloth Science and Universal Access to Information

Sloth Science and Universal Access to Information

September 28th is The International Day for Universal Access to Information (IDUAI), a day that, despite this digital age, goes largely unrecognized.

But what does this mean? And how does maintaining universal access to information have anything to do with sloths? In our quest to better understand these unique and enigmatic creatures, all information about them is valuable. Moreover, the success of the scientific method relies on open and equal access to information.

 

 

Origins of the scientific method

The tried and true scientific method, a staple of our science fairs and classrooms, has not always been around. It emerged in the 1600s, largely due to the work of Copernicus and Newton, whose theories helped us to understand the role of gravity in our solar system.

Source: https://www.sciencebuddies.org/science-fair-projects/science-fair/steps-of-the-scientific-method

 

One of the key drivers behind the success of the scientific method has been the sharing of information. Studies are repeated in different contexts to see if the same results emerge and the knowledge gained from these experiments serve as the inspiration for new studies. Together we begin to chip away at the mysteries of the universe. However, despite its power, knowledge has not always been shared equally.

 

The first public library

The modern public library, as we know it today, is a fairly recent invention. There is evidence of ancient libraries dating back to 7 B.C.E with the oldest known library belonging to the Assyrian ruler, Ashurbanipal, however access to these collections was restricted. The first modern public library was created in 1833 in Peterborough, New Hampshire, making the Peterborough Town Library, the oldest public library supported by money from taxes.

 

Peterborough Town Library’s books could be accessed for free by anyone living in the town./Source: https://peterboroughtownlibrary.org/history/

 

Today, many of our libraries have entered the virtual realm and yet they continue to provide free access to a great assortment of educational materials. However, despite the importance of open access to information, many scientific journals still act as the gatekeepers.

 

Open-access journals

If you are a scientist who has just completed a study, your next step is often deciding whether you would like to publish your article in a traditional journal or an open-access journal. Historically, journals were only available in print form. Now in the age of the internet, many journals have opted to virtually publish their studies online.

Like public libraries, open-access journals are free and can be read by anyone with an internet connection. Seems like the best choice, right? Although publishing in an open-access journal can often lead to more visibility (since the study is readily available) there are hidden drawbacks.

 

The first and latest issue of the longest-running scientific journal, Philosophical Transactions (1665-present)./Source: Wikimedia Commons and https://royalsocietypublishing.org/journal/rstb

 

Scientists pay to publish, and readers pay to view

Unlike most other trades, scientists do not get paid to publish their work – it is actually the exact opposite. First, scientists have to find funding for their research (through grant applications, fundraising or self-funding) and do the hard work of actually completing the investigation. If the project goes well and they end up with a publishable paper, they then have to pay a scientific journal to publish it.

The publication fees are typically thousands of dollars (with the cost to publish in the highest ranking journals often exceeding $10,000 per article).

The majority of scientific journals then charge an additional fee to anyone who wants to read the paper after publication. Many universities will pay the subscription fees, making a variety of journals and publications accessible for “free” to their students. However, for an individual who is not studying at a university, a single article can cost $30+. A price that for many is prohibitively expensive.

For this reason, publishing in an open-access journal is significantly more expensive than publishing in a more traditional pay-to-view journal. Unless the scientist hoping to publish the study has these kinds of funds available, they may have to choose a more restricted access journal, or not publish the important findings from their work at all!

Paying to access scientific information is not an option for the majority of people living and working in regions that are of critical conservation importance.

There is an important overlap between areas of poverty and key areas of global biodiversity. If the people working on the ground to protect and conserve wildlife cannot access the latest scientific information due to the financial constraints (or language barriers, with the majority of scientific journals only publishing in English) then the information isn’t reaching the people who need access to it the most. 

 

SloCo’s commitment to open-access

Here at SloCo we believe that knowledge should be shared. Therefore all of the research that we have conducted on sloths is published in open-access journals. Our hope is that by enabling everyone access to this information, we can harness the power of collaborative science in order to more effectively understand sloths and how we can help them.

 

Sloth scientist and founder of SloCo, Dr. Rebecca Cliffe, fits a male three-fingered sloth (Bradypus variegatus) with a sloth backpack /Photo: Suzi Eszterhas

 

-Katra Laidlaw

Five-ton giant sloth lived in Costa Rica seven million years ago!

Five-ton giant sloth lived in Costa Rica seven million years ago!

A giant sloth weighing five tons and whose height could exceed twice that of a human being was part of prehistoric Costa Rica seven million years ago.

A group of paleontologists is working hard to determine the characteristics of this giant sloth to see if it corresponds with previously described species – or whether it is completely new to science!

This is part of a project that started in 2003 in San Gerardo de Limoncito, Coto Brus, about 11 kilometers from San Vito. In this area, the researchers searched for bones and fossils of different species.

For more than a decade, Ana Lucía Valerio, coordinator of Geology at the National Museum, and César Laurito from the National Institute of Learning (INA) searched and analyzed more than 2,600 samples of bones from dozens of different species that appeared throughout the expeditions.

giant sloth
The bones found correspond to giant sloths similar to those in this image, whose height can easily exceed twice that of a person. Illustration: Franklin Rodríguez

“When I decided to go for paleontology, no one cared for something to appear here. Venturing out to find mammals was unthinkable. They told us ‘you are looking for little bones, it is not important, but the finding makes the world look again and say ‘something is happening here, something we did not expect and that is changing the vision of biological exchange'” Laurito explained.

This region is important because it provides further proof that Central America served as a bridge for animals to cross from South America to North America and vice versa. 

“We are talking about something very old. The Isthmus only closed about 3.5 million years ago, but these sloths lived seven million years ago. So how did these giant animals from South America get to southern Costa Rica if they had no adaptations for swimming? It is possible that for a time there was a pass, a land bridge, for these animals to cross. This passage could exist for a short period of time, but for paleontology, a short period of time could be a million years ”

“In other words, species from South America are appearing much earlier than expected – by about four million years” he clarified.

Describing the sloths:

In recent years, Valerio and Laurito have described many different species of prehistoric horses, camels, armadillos, and other types of mammals on Costa Rican soil.

However, they had a problem with the sloths’ material as they had no way to compare it. This type of research in paleontology is very new in Costa Rica, and so they formed a collaboration with Ascanio Rincón, head of Paleontology at the Venezuelan Institute of Scientific Research, who has been studying these prehistoric giants for many years.

Rincón helped to complete the next part of the analysis: determining what kind of sloths they are. All of the bones were found at the same site, but they accumulated during different years of searching.

“There is no record of these animals in North America until much later. What prevented them from crossing? Or what did they find here that made them stay longer without moving?” Rincón wonders.

For this new analysis, all bones must be photographed, measured, analyzed, described and compared with the bones of other giant sloths. After all of this, important aspects of these populations can be determined.

giant sloth found in costa rica
The Venezuelan paleontologist Ascanio Rincón (left) is in the country to collaborate with the research of Ana Lucía Valerio Zamora and César Laurito Mora, who have spent years studying the paleontology of fossils found in Coto Brus. In the photograph, they present the ankle bone of a giant sloth. Photo: Rafael Pacheco

“Now we have to do the hard work, which is to compare it with the rest of the 14 or 15 genera that exist and determine who it resembles the most and who it resembles the least and see if we are dealing with a new species,” said Rincón.
This is not easy. It is very difficult to find complete bones and so they only have small samples from which to draw conclusions.

“This is not how it looks in the movies. Not that it was just brushed off a bit and there it all appeared. We had to chop very hard rocks to be able to remove this. It took a lot of strength, a lot of searching, and sometimes bones of some species appeared, while sometimes other bones of other species. What we have today was put together and gathered over several years ”, Laurito indicated.

Rincón added: “It is hard to be able to know what is happening with only 15% of the body; how to put this puzzle together? In this case, we do have material from various types of bone that help us to better understand the panorama”.

The researchers reported that at least three individual sloths have been found as they discovered three bones of the same type but different sizes (ages). This indicates that these giant sloths may have traveled in a herd or as a family.

 

giant sloth
These are some of the giant sloth bones scientists are analyzing. Photo: Rafael Pacheco

What do we know about this animal?

Although it is difficult to properly visualize what these extinct sloths looked like, scientists do have some ideas!

For example, it is known that they walked on the soles of their back feet and on the knuckles of their hands. The front claws were very strong and were probably used for digging. Furthermore, due to their massive size and weight, these sloths probably did not climb trees!

Their teeth were so strong they could feed on wood and other hard materials. These teeth had a remarkable ability to regenerate from the wear and tear that was incurred when chewing. In fact, chewing was essential to prevent the teeth from overgrowing and causing problems!

Giant sloths are known to have been social animals, possibly living in large herds or family groups.

 

Giant Ground Sloths lived in North and South America and went ...

The importance of the discovery

Within these discoveries, there could be now-extinct species that are new to science.

“The fossil hunter does not kill his prey, he resurrects it. We resuscitate that dam that we are looking for in order to get to know it and for people to know it” said Rincón.

Why is this important? Rincón was emphatic: “This type of knowledge helps us to understand who we are, where we came from, and it gives identity to the Isthmus. We cannot judge a book by its last page, we must see what comes before, and that is why it is necessary to study paleontology ”.

-Source: Diario La nación Costa Rica