The Urban Sloth Project Recap – Part I (November 2020 to December 2021)
In the South Caribbean of Costa Rica, it is pretty common to find sloths in unusual places: on a restaurant cutlery shelf, a hotel ladder, a fruit stand, clinging to a truck… you name it, sloths have been there. World-renowned wildlife photographer Suzi Eszterhas came to the South Caribbean to take eye-opening photographs of the lives of these sloths in urbanized areas.
The Urban Sloth Project
The Urban Sloth Project aims to study how habitat loss and disturbance in the form of urbanization affect the lives of sloths. How often must they come to the ground to change trees, rather than use canopy branches? How long does it take them to traverse the ground? Are they resting lower down than their counterparts living in optimal rainforest conditions?
If so, is this a behavioral factor, or are they forced lower because the trees are not as tall and mature? Must they change trees more frequently to find suitable leaves? And how much variation is there in their diet?
These are just some of the questions we are aiming to answer through the Urban Sloth Project!
We had our USP timeline mapped out, but unexpected pitfalls, as well as some exciting opportunities, have meant that the old saying has proven itself true, once again – the best-laid plans of sloths and scientists go oft awry.
We would like to share our stories and experiences from the first year of the Urban Sloth Project: the sloths, the trackers, the tears, and the joy.
First came Sharon
Sharon was a small juvenile two-fingered sloth (Choloepus hoffmanni), and our very first Urban Sloth. We found her while out scouting for our first urban sloth, she was being harassed by dogs while trying to make her way to a Beach Almond tree (Terminalia catappa). Luckily, our team was there to keep her safe. She helped us as we got our tracking legs underneath us and figured out how the USP was going to work!
Then came the Bradypus
Next, we collared the first of our three-fingered sloths (Bradypus variegatus): Alan, from the beautifully connected eco-hotel Kukula Lodge, and Croissant, whose original territory covered a road undergoing a huge amount of deforestation and construction.
Backpacks for everyone!
Our next Urban Sloths were Cacao and Laurel: both Choloepus and both named after the trees they were found in, and made SloCo history as the first subjects for our famous sloths’ backpacks.
(The sloth backpacks, also called Daily Dairies, track millions of data points every minute as sloths move about the canopy; measuring when they climb, descend, stay still, how fast they move while doing so, and many other activities never before measured in wild sloths.)
Cacao’s territory was an aesthetically beautiful, well-manicured garden that unfortunately didn’t have much connectivity between the trees, forcing Cacao to cross on the ground every time he needed to change trees.
Laurel, meanwhile, took his backpack and disappeared onto private property inaccessible to the Tracking Team, where he stayed for nearly two months. The mature and well-connected property was full of tall Laurel de la India, also called Weeping Fig (Ficus benjamina), with one goliath Sandbox tree (Hura crepitans) in the center. This, as well as the abundance of other sloths in the area, made tracking Laurel difficult.
The Tracking Team was therefore very excited when he returned to his original spot, and with some carefully placed feet on shoulders and a pair of scissors, we retrieved his backpack and un-volunteered him from the USP.
The first fatality
In March we got a call from a local rescue center that Cacao had been admitted after being attacked by dogs. He survived his initial injuries, but did not survive the resulting secondary infections, and passed away in April, a month after the attack.
Luna and Sol
Although we had lost our beloved Cacao, we were able to collar Luna and her baby Sol, who would go on to become some of our favorite sloths of the USP. A spontaneous addition to the project, Luna was crossing the main road of Puerto Viejo when she was found by Dr. Cliffe.
Sol was our very first baby of the project, and we were privileged enough to watch him grow and eventually gain his independence from Luna!
Houdini the Sloth, aka Sharon
Our first USP mystery – Sharon found her way out of her collar. This was unprecedented in sloth tracking, and we still have many questions that will likely never be answered.
Finding the intact collar on the ground caused great concern that Sharon had been attacked, and the worst-case scenario was that she was nearby, but injured and in pain. Our trackers searched for her, however, five days later she turned up in one of her favorite spots, sans collar, but totally unharmed.
Hello to our highest friend
Arthur--a regal adult three-fingered male living between a yoga retreat and some luxury rentals–joins the Urban Sloths as the first three-fingered sloth with a backpack, only to have them disappear high into some dense and well-connected canopy.
Only a few months after relieving Laurel of his backpack, we were informed of a huge amount of deforestation in Laurel’s area. Devastatingly, Laurel’s entire territory, as well as many other trees along the road, had been cut down.
When Team Sloth went to investigate the damage, there were displaced sloths everywhere we looked. We were able to relocate some to more appropriate areas, and we could only hope that Laurel himself survived the destruction.
These problems are a direct result of the exact issues we aim to address in the USP, and in spite of the heartbreak from witnessing this kind of deforestation, Team Sloth is more determined than ever to gather this important data on sloth behavior and ecology in urban environments－our ability to scientifically document these events is the only way to effect change.
Wildlife photographer Suzi Ezsterhas visited SloCo to document the plight of Urban Sloths. While searching for sloths to photograph, Team Sloth stumbled upon a small, wet ball of fur among fallen leaves and coconut husks along the beach path directly opposite SlotHQ. We bought the little three-fingered sloth in from the cold, where she huddled up to Jim, SloCo’s mascot, and promptly fell asleep.
After dining out on some fresh baby guarumo leaves (Cecropia sp.) from our tree nursery, we took the opportunity to fit baby Mango with a tracking collar.
Next to Croissant… Baguette!
We came across a female three-fingered sloth clinging to the top of a fence: she was trying to escape a pack of barking dogs protecting their territory. Team Sloth fought through the pouring rain to rescue the sloth, but before releasing her we fit her with a collar and named her Baguette, since she was found on the same bakery road as little Croissant.
We’d like the Nachos, please!
Welcome Nacho, one of the most remarkable sloths of the USP! Nacho was first fitted with his collar at a cantina on Cocles beach, and named after Team Sloth’s favorite dish there. Over the next couple of weeks, Nacho made his epic journey all the way from Cocles to downtown Puerto Viejo.
The Tracking Team followed him on his journey to some rather strange places for a sloth to hang out: isolated beach almond trees on the side of the road, the middle of a lively bar, and a restaurant … We soon began to refer to Nacho as out party sloth, for his proximity to human activities.
The second fatality
As we were waiting for an opportunity to recollar, we were faced with the second fatality of the USP in June of 2021. Sharon had been electrocuted while using an uninsulated powerline to move between trees.
We were devastated by Sharon’s death and vowed to renew our efforts to understand and help sloths adapt to human-impacted environments.
The traveler sloth
Nacho surprised us all by traveling over two kilometers in two weeks, a feat we had not previously known was possible for a sloth.
We recaught Mango to swap his backpack for a collar. Since he was so young and small when we first fitted him, we knew we’d have to check him often to make sure he didn’t outgrow it. We were pleased to find that he was healthy and growing just as expected.
Croissant’s big move
Throughout late August 2021, we were having a lot of trouble tracking Croissant. The inconsistent signals from her VHF collar were proving difficult for our tracking team to triangulate.
It turns out that she had crossed a lengthy deforested gap by traversing fences and roads to an undeveloped piece of land near the center of town, around 500m away. Since her territory was in the process of undergoing a large amount of deforestation and disturbance, it makes sense that she would seek out greener pastures.
While this area is much more difficult for our team to track her in, it is a much more appropriate sloth habitat, and she has remained there ever since.
Nacho made it all the way to town this month and took shelter in a restaurant during a rainstorm. While it isn’t too unusual for urban sloths to wander into the local eateries, Nacho decided to climb around under the tables and try to bite the customer’s ankles.
Since this is bad for business, the restaurant owner called the local rescue center, who removed Nacho and called us. After a health check and monitoring period, Nacho was found to be fit and healthy, so we took the opportunity to swap his collar for a backpack!
He was then released into one of the only appropriate habitat spots in his home range; the dreaded swamp which Croissant had also moved to. Over the next few days Nacho crossed the street to one of Puerto Viejo’s liveliest beach bars. There were a few well-connected trees on the property, and Nacho seemed unconcerned by the constant stream of patrons and loud music.
Croissant health check
First collared as a young adult, we had some concerns that Croissant might eventually outgrow her collar. She had been difficult to find in her new home territory, but at the first opportunity, we gave her a health check and tech adjustment. We were pleased to find that although she had grown, her collar had not become too tight and still fit her well. Finding no adverse physiological effects of the tracking equipment was vital to the continuation of the USP!
The case of the missing tracking equipment / Bye. bye Nacho
Underneath Nacho’s favorite trees is the permanent camping spot of a man who is not our biggest fan, and took it upon himself to remove Nacho’s tech. He seemed unaware or uncaring that we knew he had Nacho’s backpack, and when we found and refitted Nacho with a collar, he removed that too.
Team Sloth made the difficult decision to not recollar Nacho. We really liked having him in the USP, but we could not risk his well-being by making him a target for people who would handle him and steal our expensive equipment, and so we removed him from the project.
Good luck Sol!
During the month of October, the Tracking Team had noticed baby Sol going through his rebellious teenager phase: he wanted to be further away from his mum and venture out on his own. It started with three limbs rather than four clinging onto Luna’s fur, a set of claws gripping onto a vine instead. Then Sol was seen next to Luna, rather than on her. Then one day, he wasn’t with her at all! Luna gifted Sol a portion of her territory and little Sol was officially all grown up.
Always high in the canopy
Baguette remains our most difficult sloth to monitor, and we finally got a chance to retrieve Arthur’s backpack, allowing us to download millions of data points from the backpack (which are still being processed by specialized computers in the Swansea University lab) and confirm that the backpack design works great.
The case of the missing collar
One Friday while out tracking, we were receiving no signal at all from little Mango’s collar. While it was possible Mango had decided to move further afield, she would have had to have moved over 10km in less than 24hrs for the VHF signal to not reach the receiver! We know sloths can move faster than most people give them credit for, however this was very much beyond Mango’s capabilities.
We believe that as Mango’s favorite spots were low down, and often in plain sight if you knew where to look, someone walking along the beach saw little Mango and his little collar, and didn’t know what it was. Luckily, the next day some members of Team Sloth were enjoying a weekend at the beach when they noticed Mango sitting low on her favorite guarumo trunk and she was recollared with little fuss! Mango responded to this collar-napping by venturing across the beach path, and she has since doubled the size of her old territory.
Just before Christmas, Luna’s territory was being deforested, leaving a dozen sloths and countless other wildlife homeless. However, the community was not going to stand for this. Community members and local organizations, including SloCo, were able to temporarily halt the work and contact the authorities, who had the power to permanently stop the intended development.
Stay tuned for Part II !
If you would like to receive real-time, monthly updates from the Urban Sloth Project, featuring updates on all of our Urban Sloths, plus biographies, illustrations, and other exclusive materials, you can sign up for our VIP program!