Getting to know Team Sloth: Meet Amelia!
Amelia Symeou is SloCo’s Ecology Coordinator. She is currently leading the Urban Sloth Project and tracking sloths every day. How did she become one of SloCo’s scientists? What’s a day in the life of a sloth scientist really like? Find out more about how her journey from newts to parasites eventually led her to the jungles of Costa Rica.
As a child, were you interested in science? Were you drawn to animals? What inspired you to become a scientist?
As a child, I was always interested in animals. We were lucky and had a really big garden with some ponds in it, so I would spend most of my time as a child with little fishing nets fishing the frogs and the newts out of these ponds, placing them in buckets, and then putting them back.
I would do that for hours. I feel bad for those little guys now. Or digging and finding bugs and worms and other creepy crawlies. Animals were always “my thing” growing up. They have always been a big part of my interests.
When and how did you decide to study biological sciences?
For the longest time, I thought that the only way to work with animals was to be a vet. I kind of started going down that route and realized quite quickly that’s not really what I wanted to do. Then I realized that there were other things I could do to work with animals besides being a vet.
I became very interested in conservation and ecology through that. I was lucky that in my course at University I could pick modules that interested me so I picked a lot of behavior, welfare, and ethics modules that brought me here to this point, working with our natural environment.
As a part of my University course, I did my dissertation on parasitology (which had nothing to do with sloths!). We were studying the efficiency and efficacy of a diagnostic tool called a Mini-FLOTAC which is a non-invasive and cheap way to test intestinal trematodes (so gut parasites basically).
It is a really useful tool in diagnosing schistosomiasis which is a neglected tropical disease that affects millions of people around the world. We don’t see it too much here in Costa Rica but it’s very prevalent in Africa. This tool is really simple, cheap to make, cheap to use (you don’t need a centrifuge or anything like that). It helps to diagnose some really awful parasitic diseases so that people can get the treatment that they need.
Why did you originally come to Costa Rica?
I first came to Costa Rica in September 2019 to volunteer for the Sloth Conservation Foundation. As things do in the Caribbean, things didn’t run on time and so the three months I was meant to be working on a tracking project, those sloths weren’t ready to be tracked.
So I left after three months, as was the plan, and then I came back straight after Christmas because I didn’t get the chance to do the thing that I came here to do. By then I had completely fallen in love with the town and with the people and with SloCo so coming back for what was meant to be another three months was a really easy decision.
In those three months, we did get to do the tracking project I came here originally for. And then COVID hit and we were all stuck but still continued. I stayed here instead of going home and now I’m the Ecology coordinator and run the Urban Sloth Project. So coming back was the right decision.
Read more: Return to the wild: post-release monitoring
What is your role at SloCo?
I am the Ecology Coordinator for SloCo. That means I’m responsible for the research projects that we are currently running. Our main research project at the moment is the Urban Sloth Project, so that project aims to compare the activity budgets between sloths living in urban environments and sloths living in an optimal rainforest environment. Through that, we can see the differences in their behavior budgets and see exactly how urbanization is affecting sloths living among people.
Sloths are the most common animal taken into rescue centers in Costa Rica. So, obviously, something is happening, there is something not going quite right. It is our job to figure out what it is and how to fix it.
What does a typical day look like for you?
My usual day as Ecology Coordinator for SloCo would be tracking whenever the weather allows us (whenever it is not too rainy or not too sunny). We are tracking in an urban environment at the moment mainly, which can be really great. The sloths have their own routine and so often we can predict where they are going to be.
On some properties there are people living there so they keep an eye on the sloths for us, so we go there and they’ll just say, “Oh, Cacao is in his usual tree” which saves us half the job, which is really lovely. Other times, it is a little bit harder because we are working in an urban environment, there are a lot of fenced-off private properties that we don’t always have access to.
Obviously, the sloths don’t care about that. So sometimes it is difficult when there is a sloth on a piece of land that we can’t enter, we know it is there but we can’t get onto the land to do any measurements or take any meaningful data. So that’s quite frustrating sometimes.
On the other hand, we have tracking in an optimal rainforest environment which comes with its own obstacles. The main one being the fact it is a rainforest and there are a lot of low-growing plants, which makes it very difficult to walk through. Usually, there is no trail, so we have to cut our own trail.
And then there are the obvious dangers of snakes and things like that so we have to gear up with our snake guards. And then also trees are very tall, and they are covered in epiphytes. It is exactly the environment a sloth should be in and they are perfectly camouflaged for that environment, which makes our job harder.
The tracking equipment can tell us that the sloth is right there, but we cannot see them, because they are so well camouflaged. They are being a really good sloth but it makes it a little difficult for us when that sort of thing happens. Other than that, it’s a lot of working on research permits, because every time we do research like this, we must ask permission from the government, and that is a long process, and also sticking all the data into the computer, into spreadsheets, which is no one’s favorite part of any job.
What is it like working in Costa Rica?
So one of my favorite things about working in Costa Rica is for sure the biodiversity. You walk outside your house in the morning and you’re surrounded by things that some people might never see in their entire lives. You have the Great Green Macaws flying around which is one of the most endangered species in the world and I just see them every morning outside my house. You are woken up by the troops of howler monkeys which is just amazing and you wake up to the sound of the ocean.
You are living in a little slice of paradise. Everything works at a much slower pace. We work at sloth speed, not just us, everyone, which is a speed that I’m quite accustomed to, so that works out well for me.
What are your goals and dreams for the future?
For the future, I hope to be able to continue doing research like this, field research. The Urban Sloth Project is a five-year-long project, so at the moment, that is my future, so I hope that we are able to get some really good data, that we are able to analyze that data and come up with some concrete plans to conserve sloths in the wild.
By conserving sloths in the wild, we are also helping all other wildlife that shares their environment with us and the sloths. Because insulating power lines, building wildlife bridges, and reforesting the environment is going to benefit every single organism that we share our environment with.
What does conservation mean to you?
Conservation, to me, means not only conserving a species but an entire ecosystem. To me it doesn’t make sense to try and conserve one species because there is a reason that that species is struggling, that is not the species’ fault that is something that is occurring outside of themselves.
Often by helping those issues, we are not only going to help that species but you are going to help everything else that is living in that environment. That is really important to me. To understand that the aim of conservation is not about putting a band-aid over an issue, it is about fixing that problem so that it is no longer a problem. So that is really important, and I feel like that is something that is sometimes lost in temporary solutions for very big problems.
That is why research is so important, especially when it comes to sloths because so little research has been done. Research is so important for getting definitive answers to our questions and therefore being able to provide the solutions that help not only sloths but the entire ecosystem, including us.
What has it been like working as a woman in science?
So in my journey to get here, my education, and my career so far, I’ve never really experienced, very luckily, any discrimination. I went to the Royal Veterinary College University of London and we were 90% women in that institution, I would say. There were maybe 5-6 boys on my course, so really I have always been around female scientists.
It’s never felt like an obstacle for me personally, and it’s never felt like there weren’t any of us. But then coming into a work environment where there is that disparity between men and women has been a little more difficult, especially at University where all I saw pretty much were women scientists, most of my lecturers were also women. So then coming into the field maybe there were points, but then I joined SloCo, which also has a lot of women working here.
What are your favorite things about sloths?
My favorite thing about sloths is probably that they are 3x stronger than human beings. I love that. I remember when I learned that it caught me completely off guard. People are often really shocked when we say that and they ask, “How? They are so small!” You always think the bigger you are the stronger you are, like elephants are obviously super strong because they are so massive. But how could a small sloth be stronger than us?
And it is just because of the way that their fibers are arranged within their muscles, their muscles are pound for pound stronger than ours are. The muscles are arranged differently within their skeletal structure (that also gives them more strength) their muscles work on a lever system, which I think is really interesting.
And also the fact that the two-fingered sloths (Choloepus) have these humongous teeth, which I again didn’t know before I came here, and I didn’t really know until I was bitten by one! That was a bit of a rude awakening that these guys have a lot that they can use to defend themselves with. But their best form of defense is their camouflage because everything else uses up way too much energy for them.
Read More: Do you think you’re stronger than sloths?
Outside of work, what do you like to do?
Outside of work (my answer would probably be different if I was still living in London) but here I go to the beach, I go for walks. We are surrounded by this beautiful environment so sometimes it’s sad to sit inside and watch Netflix (which I still do) but I spend a lot more of my time outside here than I would if I was still living in London.
I love going out to eat, which has been tough during the pandemic. I think it is really sad that it is something we haven’t been able to do. But slowly, slowly things are opening again here for us, and I’m able to go back to my favorite restaurants, which to me is a form of self-care. I love going out to eat and trying new food, and trying new drinks.
I’m very lucky to be here by the ocean because one of my favorite activities is paddleboarding, and here we can do that certain months of the year.
That’s been really lovely for me to go out and be able to do that in my own time, rather than in a holiday setting, where you know it’s only temporary. I like that I’m able to go, spend as much time as I want to come back and my board is still the next day and I can go if I want, or I don’t have to go if I want, that’s absolutely fine too.
Do you have any advice for an aspiring conservationist?
So some people ask how I found SloCo, and for me, Google was my best friend. Literally, all my internships that I applied for that I was accepted to, have been through Googling the kind of conservation that I wanted to do. For example, Googling “sloth conservation.”
SloCo was one of the first ones that came up. There was nothing advertised about wanting volunteers but I shot off an email anyway and that is how I got a fair few of my internships leading up to this point was just by sending off dozens and dozens and dozens of emails.
A lot of them may not respond to you, that is fine, that is most likely nothing personal to you. Conservation organizations are run on usually on a skeleton staff because we are non-profits and can’t always afford to hire admin staff so I understand sometimes emails get lost, emails don’t always get responded to but it is about sending out as many as you can to hedge your bets as to who is going to respond to you. That was how I pretty much did everything after University, how all the opportunities came my way was by searching for them.