How pups and poop are making history with the first-ever sloth population census
Sloths have spent millions of years evolving to go unnoticed, living high in the canopies of tropical rainforests where they blend into the surrounding flora.
They go undetected by the senses of their predators－and of would-be sloth researchers and their equipment. They are such masters of disguise, how can we count them to know how many there are? What are their population trends, and why does it matter? If they started to disappear… would anyone even notice?
How many sloths are there?
Such a simple question with such a complicated answer. The short version is, that we don’t know. The longer version is, we need to know.
Two species of sloths are vulnerable and critically endangered, and the other four are optimistically listed as “least concern”, but without any idea if these populations are stable, sloths could be, and probably are, in danger. It is urgent to reassess this as soon as possible (Lara-Ruiz et al., 2008; Voirin, 2015).
Knowing population trends matters
Habitat loss, habitat fragmentation, dog attacks, traffic, and powerlines are all significant threats to sloth survival, however, the largest and most invisible threat is ignorance.
Without accurate data on wild sloth populations, governments cannot pass protective legislation, NGOs cannot assess the effectiveness of conservation programs, and sloth genetic diversity may reach a critical state before anyone even knows what’s wrong.
We might not see the sloths, but we can find their traces!
To address this problem, SloCo and the experts of Working Dogs for Conservation are training the first ever Wildlife Scat Detection Dogs for use in sloth conservation!
Our Scat Detection Dogs will be able to lead researchers to the places where sloths bury their poop, which we can collect and analyze to find out how many sloths are in an area, if they move around a lot or stay there, and what their genetic health looks like.
Introducing Dayko and Keysha
The newest members of Team Sloth are Dayko and Keysha, two adorable dogs who are being trained by project coordinator Tamara Avila.
Dogs have amazing noses, with up to 300 million scent receptors, and a smell-oriented brain whose olfactory section is 40 times greater than ours. That’s not just better than any human; a dog’s sense of smell is better than any instrument ever invented by humans!
After they have completed their training with the professionals of WDFC, they will be evaluated for their aptitude in the field and move on to the next part of the project.
Dogs travel well, and unlike mechanical technology, do not rust in jungle environments.
As this project progresses, Dayko and Keysha can go to remote areas all over Central and South America to evaluate sloth populations. This is a low-tech, non-invasive method that doesn’t hurt sloths or the environment and can be copied by other researchers and conservation organizations.
When Dayko and Keysha get too old for tracking sloth poop in the jungle, they can transition to education ambassadors for the school program and serve as models for ideal pet-wildlife relations. At team SloCo, we take care of our partners all the way!
Objectives for the Sloth Scat Detection Dog Program:
- Train the dogs to detect scat from Bradypus variegatus and Choloepus hoffmanni, the two species of sloth in Costa Rica
- Conduct the first-ever sloth population survey by collecting data on sloth poop. Scat locations will be recorded using GPS, samples will be collected for future analysis
- Map the current distribution and relative density of sloths in the South Caribbean of Costa Rica using ArcGIS, then work with local community members and leaders to help protect these areas.
- Begin long-term studies to understand sloth population trends over time and see which conservation strategies are the most effective.
- Published results in a scientific paper documenting these trends.
- Use our methods to study the population of the vulnerable maned sloths (B. torquatus) in Brazil.
Continuing this project long-term will allow us, for the first time, to understand and document what is happening to sloth populations.
The IUCN Specialist Group, governments, and other relevant authorities will use this data to determine how sloths are doing and what needs to be done to protect them.
This will allow conservation strategies to ensure genetic diversity, and the most important areas for sloths can be identified and protected.