Friday, 15 May 2015

Sloth Backpack Project

Most people are very familiar with sloths.  The general perception of these creatures is that they are very slow moving, tree abiding animals that can be hard to spot.  This is all true but, surprisingly for such an iconic species, not much is actually known about them at a scientific and conservation level.  This is due to a lack of research focusing on this animal of which there are two types, two-toed and three-toed, with six different species: Pygmy three-toed sloth, Maned sloth, Brown-throated three-toed sloth, Lannaeus's two-toed sloth and Hoffman's two-toed sloth.  

Pygmy three-toed sloth
At present, only the Pygmy three-toed sloth is critically endangered with the Maned sloth also being declared vulnerable.  All these species rely on tropical rainforest as their habitat and they are found in Central and South America.  The Pygmy three-toed sloth is separated from the rest of the species as it is endemic to a small island off Panama (Isla Ecudo de Veraguas) where it is only found in red mangrove forest.  This habitat is being reduced through logging and degraded through increased tourism which is affecting this sloth's populations.  It has also been reported that local people and tourists hunt these animals for food and sport further reducing their numbers.  

Deforestation is the most serious and common threat facing all species of sloth.  However, lack of behavioural and biological knowledge of these species means scientists are uncertain as to how sloths will react to this threat and how to conserve them.  An issue that has already arisen is an increase in deformed young sloths that is probably due to an increase in inbreeding that has occurred because of habitat fragmentation.

Therefore, this is a vital area of research that has begun to be explored by the 'Sloth Saunturay' in Costa Rica which is involved in the 'Sloth Backpack Project' that is spearheaded by a British zoologist Becky Cliffe. This research currently focus's on Brown-throated three-toed and Hoffman's two-toed sloths which are being fitted with 'backpacks' that combine VHF transmitters and GPS tags.  This provides information about these sloth's habitat preference, range, diet and reproduction.  This information can be used to highlight important areas for these species and therefore conservation efforts can focus on protecting these habitats. In addition, this information can also help in the captive breeding of these species as the 'Sloth Sancuray' receives many orphaned sloths that have been separated and injured by local people that persecute them.  At present there have been few successful releases of these orphans but this research can provide information about what these sloth's require to learn in order to be released into the wild.  
Orphaned sloth at the santuary
So far, 17 sloths have been fitted with these backpacks but there are plans to increase this number in order to construct a more comprehensive understanding of sloth ecology.  This is an exciting project that should inspire all conservationists to uncover similar creatures that although seem abundant and well understood
actually require our help.   I'm sure this will not be the first time we're shocked about our lack of understanding about the nature around us but I hope this will only go on to inspire more essential and fascinating research.

More information can be found about this project at Becky Cliffe's blog ( and the 'Sloth Santuary' website ( 

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