What does an average day of ‘work’ involve for a sloth researcher?

This is probably one of the most frequent questions that 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. I was initially hoping to have a higher number of tagged sloths by now (I currently have four) but I have quickly discovered just how time consuming it can be to properly study each individual!

Becky Cliffe 2014 10 06

Every day, I put on my snake boots, binoculars and machete and head out into the jungle with my VHF radio receiver and track down the sloths – depending on the weather and where the sloth is positioned, this can take anywhere from ten minutes to five hours per animal! Sometimes, the sloths can be so well camouflaged that even with all of the technology I still can’t pinpoint their exact location – unfortunately, sloths look remarkably like clumps of leaves and termite nests. This can be extremely frustrating after five hours of staring through binoculars!

When I finally locate the sloth I have been searching for, I tag the tree that they are in with flagging tape (for species identification later) and I record the time, where they are positioned within the tree, a description of what they are doing (eating, climbing, grooming, resting – usually!), and finally I take a manual GPS reading for later reference. It is a magical moment when I finally spot the sloth that I have been searching for, and I usually spend a good amount of time just sitting and observing the animal – this can be incredibly relaxing (so long as the mosquitoes aren’t too savage!). This whole routine usually consumes a good proportion of the day, and I do this six days a week. All of this is absolutely weather dependent, as I have quickly learnt that finding sloths is virtually impossible in the rain. I can suddenly understand why sloths have been so poorly studied in the past – it’s not easy! Thankfully, I have plenty of time to dedicate to this project and I am determined to make it a success.

When I am not crawling through the jungle, I can usually be found at my desk buried behind piles of data, emails and half written research papers. Away from the biology, I spend a few hours each day helping out around the sanctuary – giving tours, assisting with rescues and working with the inured sloths in the clinic. Finally, I also manage most of the sanctuary’s social media sites and write the website blog. All in all, it is extremely rewarding work and I find myself very lucky to be living my dream every single day.

Becky And Sloth _2014_10_06

More recently, I have been busy caring for my latest sloth research assistant – a 12-week-old cockapoo puppy called Cody. He not only keeps me company whilst I drown in data analysis, but I hope to train him in the art of scat detection – in other words, I want him to sniff out sloth poop in the jungle!

This will be useful in many ways. Firstly, I hope to study the sloths' unusual bathroom habits. This is easier said than done as the sloths literally sneak down the trees once a week and quietly hide their waste by burying it at the base of the tree. I can sometimes find the evidence just by scratching around underneath some of their favourite trees, but this is difficult and very time consuming.

I am trying to map out the bathroom habits of all the sloths in my study in the hope of discovering why they have evolved this strange behaviour. Secondly, sniffing out sloth poop will be a great way to formulate an estimate for the population density in the region. This is very difficult to do visually as the sloths are so hard to spot, but knowing the population count is very important if we are to protect the species in the future. No pressure, Cody!

Bekcy And Dog 2014 10 06