Yes, sloths are ridiculously adorable ... but there's so much more to them than just off-the-charts aww-factor. They also happen to be some of the strangest and most fascinating (and poorly studied) animals around. That's why we're so excited to be kicking off a new blog devoted to these slow-moving, furry folivores. Thanks to researcher Becky Cliffe, who's running a fascinating sloth-tracking project at the Costa Rican Sloth Sanctuary, we'll be getting regular dispatches directly from the rainforests of Costa Rica on everything from new sloth-related discoveries to the day-to-day exploits of one of the world's only sloth researchers (and the obligatory baby sloth photo here and there, we promise). To get us all up to speed with Becky and her amazing work, we sent a few questions her way. (For regular updates, keep checking in at Becky's Slothcentric blog.)
As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I really didn't know what I wanted to be when I grew up – I just knew that I loved being outdoors and that I had an insatiable curiosity for all living things, big and small! I used to spend my days running through the woods near my house, collecting a whole array of creepy crawlies, and bringing them back to the house to add to my collection of 'bug boxes'. Biology was always my best subject at school, and I ended up just following my passion for wildlife. There was always a lot of pressure to select a career path and work towards a 'real job' (and there sometimes still is) but I never really followed that route – my dream job found me!
How did you go from that to tracking sloths in the South American rainforests?
I had followed my heart and was studying zoology at university (still without a set career plan in mind) and I found myself with the option to take a 12-month research placement. I jumped at the chance to spend a year in the field, and it just so happened that one of my professors had created a research link with the Sloth Sanctuary in Costa Rica. I immediately applied for a position and after several rounds of interviews, I got the job! Two months later I flew out to Costa Rica and the rest is history. During that first year I pioneered the first long-term study into captive sloth biology, and through the guidance of Judy Avey-Arroyo (founder of the sanctuary) I accidentally found myself becoming one of the world's only sloth researchers.
Aside from the undeniable cute factor (who doesn’t love baby sloths?), what else drew you to these unusual animals?
Of course baby sloths are unbearably cute, and I still find myself going gooey-eyed when looking at an orphaned baby clinging to a stuffed toy, but I find sloths more interesting for their unusual biology. They are so unlike any other mammal on the planet and yet we know so little about them. For decades, they have been misunderstood as lazy, simple animals that do nothing but sleep. It is only in recent years that we are beginning to see just how fascinating the sloth lifestyle is – and we still have so much to learn.
The Costa Rican Sloth Sanctuary is a pretty remarkable place. How important is a facility like this when it comes to safeguarding these animals?
It becomes quite evident just how important the sanctuary is when you look at the number of sloths that have been in need of rescue over the years. The sanctuary has received close to 1,000 animals – and these are just the sloths that have been injured or orphaned within Costa Rica, found by someone who was willing to transport them to the facility. The number of sloths that are never found ... that's a scary thought. Rescue centres are appearing all across Costa Rica and as long as humans are encroaching into the rainforest habitat, we are always going to need centres like these to deal with the displaced animals.
Working in the Costa Rican wilderness must come with some risks. Any scary stories you can tell us?
I love working in the jungle, but it is not a friendly place! It's full of snakes, spiders, scorpions, bullet ants and hairy caterpillars (just to name a few) – all of which can cause me some serious problems if I get too close! And let's not forget the angry swarms of mosquitoes and other blood-sucking insects (any skin left unprotected is a feast for those guys). Besides the annoying itching and unattractive sores that the biting bugs cause, they can also carry some nasty diseases including, malaria and dengue fever. In fact, I had the unfortunate experience of falling victim to one of these jungle hazards recently when I managed to contract a flesh-eating disease called leishmaniasis – you call read all about that misadventure here.
The Sloth Backpack Project you’re involved with is amazing. Tell us about it and why it’s key for sloth conservation.
I created the Sloth Backpack Project for the sanctuary three years ago and I am delighted that it is finally beginning to take off. It is basically the first-ever long-term study of wild sloth ecology, and it will provide us with knowledge that is vital for sloth conservation. Because sloths camouflage so well, they are virtually invisible in the canopy, making them notoriously difficult to study in the wild. Observational research is impossible and radio-tracking is challenging in the dense jungle. The Sloth Backpack Project utilises the latest in animal-tracking technology to record, for the first time, exactly what wild sloths are doing. The backpacks contain small data loggers called 'Daily Diaries' that record body movement and environmental data up to 40 times per second. This technology really is the key to unlocking the secrets of wild sloth ecology – we are learning exactly what the sloths' ecological requirements are so we can figure out how to help wild populations survive.
Describe a day in the life of a sloth researcher.
This is probably one of the most frequent questions I get asked, and the truth is, every day is different! The only consistent feature in my day is an adventure into the jungle to track down my study sloths. You can read up more on what an average day is like here.
Do you see social media (with its vast appetite for animal cuteness) as a helpful tool when it comes to raising awareness and funds for conservation work?
Social media has been hugely important for funding the Sloth Backpack Project and I think it has a growing role in the future of conservation. Last year, I used an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign called Save Our Sloths to raise $93,000 for the backpack project and to fund the GPS technology to develop a release program for the sanctuary's hand-reared orphans. I would never have raised this much money without the influence of social media (and without sloth babies being so unbelievably cute)! We have to be careful with the cute thing, though, because we don't want to detract from the more serious issues the sloths are facing. But a cute picture is a great way to draw people's attention – and then we can deliver a conservation message at the same time.
Tell us something we don’t know about sloths.
A few of my favourite sloth facts:
- They have the slowest metabolic rate recorded for any mammal (it can take them up to 30 days to digest just one leaf!).
- They actually only sleep for eight hours a day, but just move very slowly for the rest of the time!
- They don't sweat and don't have any body odour (they smell just like the trees they live in to avoid detection by predators).
- Sloth hairs are specially adapted to encourage the growth of algae. Each hair has a unique groove running along its length. The algae turns the sloths green and is an excellent form of camouflage.
- A single sloth can carry up to 300 'sloth moths'. This is a species of moth found only on sloths!
- What look like long, sharp claws are actually the sloths' very elongated finger bones! The fingernail forms a kind of sheath over the bone.
And finally, how can the average person help sloths survive?
There are numerous ways you can help to protect sloths – many from the comfort of your own home! Rescue centres like the Sloth Sanctuary receive no government funding and so they rely entirely on the financial support of the public for all of their conservation efforts. Donations of any size are greatly appreciated. There are also many essential items (such as powdered goat's milk for the baby sloths) that can't be found in Costa Rica, and so we rely on people bringing these in their suitcases when they visit. The Sloth Backpack Project is also dependent upon the support of the public – I offer a 'Sponsor a Backpack' programme that gives people the chance to fund an individual backpack and receive updates from its use on wild sloths.
Aside from supporting conservation efforts, people can make a difference simply by living sustainably and minimising the pressure on the rainforest. Sloths absolutely depend on the forest for survival, but their habitats are rapidly vanishing. And finally: do not support the sloth pet trade! We know that baby sloths are unbearably cute, but sloths are wild animals that belong in the rainforest, not in somebody's home. Hundreds of wild sloths are captured in countries such as Venezuela and shipped into the US every week. If you hear of a baby sloth being sold, report it to your local authorities.