Monday, June 11, 2012

Sloths of Costa Rica...I wish I could be one in my next life!

What the heck is a sloth?
Sloths are slow-moving, medium sized mammals. While they are warm-blooded, their blood is typically colder than other mammals, making them less susceptible to biting insects. Like other mammals, they have live births and produce milk to nurse their young.  Sloths are highly adapted to life in the jungles of Central and South America and are very common in certain parts of Costa Rica. Their diets consist mainly of vegetation, which while plentiful, is not very nutritious. Since they do not get much energy from that diet, sloths have a very slow metabolism. It takes up to 30 days to digest a single meal. Their hands and feet are well adapted to allow them to hang upside-down from trees most of their lives. Sloths will only descend from their arboreal homes about once a week to urinate and defecate.  Can you imagine?
Washing Baby Sloths:

The fur of the sloth is another highly specialized adaptation for this animal. The long outer hairs are grooved to allow water to drain away from the body. The hair near the base of their spines crests to form a “drip tip,” which allows rain water to flow off the back. Algae grows in the grooves on a sloth’s fur, providing extra camouflage for the canopy-dweller. Sloth fur also exhibits specialized functions; the outer hairs grow in a direction opposite from that of other mammals. In most mammals hairs grow toward the extremities, but because sloths spend so much time with their legs above their bodies, their hairs grow away from the extremities in order to provide protection from the elements while the sloth hangs upside down.
The Sloths of Costa Rica, also known locally as "Ozos Perezosos" ("Lazy Bears") and not known for being quick and nimble, though they are rather athletic in their own way.  Sloths have short, flat heads; big eyes; a short snout; long legs; and tiny ears. The species found in Costa Rica have stubby tails (6–7 cm long) handy for digging the hole when they defecate, and sloths' bodies usually are anywhere from 50 and 60 cm long.  There is something absolutely fascinating about these big hardly noticeable fur balls that appear too sleepy to budge from their perches in the high tree branches that makes them a favorite of all that have the pleasure to spot one. 

Aviarios del Caribe-Sloth Sanctuary in Cahuita:

Judy Avey Arroyo, a 63-year-old Costa Rica resident (she's originally from Anchorage, Alaska) has spent many years studying these incredible creatures, and this was never even part of her life plan.  In 1992, three local girls near Avey's Caribbean Costa Rica Hotel spotted a three-month-old sloth in the road. The girls carried the orphan to the hotel in search of help, and thus began Avey's study of this misunderstood mammal and her the start of her very popular Aviarios del Caribe Sloth Sanctuary, which has become a cult favorite among sloth enthusiasts and visiting tourism in Costa Rica.

Many of the sloths brought by locals or even travelers from up and down the country’s Caribbean coast to the Aviarios Sanctuary, are just a few months old when they arrive, while others are injured adults. Sometimes they have been badly electrocuted after climbing electrical or telephone cables, or have been crippled by a bad fall, or hit by a car.  There are so few options for these beautiful creatures to rehabilitate in the country, with the only other available sanctuary located on the Central Pacific coast of Costa Rica (recently certified by MINAET, the governing entity in Costa Rica) being located outside of Quepos & Manuel Antonio and is managed by the very popular Kids Saving the Rainforest (  These two facilities are two of only a handful of folks that will even accept these injured animals for rehab and are legally allowed to do so.

Sloths belonging to the Choloepus Genus and the Bradypus Genus arrive to the sanctuaries year round (these are the only types found in Costa Rica). The Choloepus is commonly called a two-toed sloth, although Avey points out it’s more like two fingers, as the animal’s lower limbs each have three toes. The Bradypus has three “fingers” (or "toes") and a sort of smiley face and appears to be wearing a mask around its eyes, so those are not as hard to spot, though both species are difficult to notice when living in the wild.  For both types of sloths, the fingers and toes are curved, claw-like bone appendages with fingernail coatings, which help sloths cling to branches and stuff a variety of tree leaves into their mouths. Sloths can also use the claws for defense against predators, especially should they find themselves on the jungle floor, though the most common predators are the harpy eagles, which can swoop down and snatch these large creatures right off a sturdy tree limb. Although the sluggish herbivores are rarely ever the first to attack, they will eagerly use their long claws if needed for self defense. Their natural self defense is further aided by an algae that grows within their furry coat and helps hide their scent from possible predators, such as ocelots and jaguars.  Naturally, it's humans that have long been one of the sloths' biggest threats, with the continuing loss of habitat.

The three-toed sloth is active during the day, unlike the nocturnal two-toed sloth, and so the three-toed specie is more commonly spotted by passersby. This sloth only eats leaves from trees and lianas, but may feed on one hundred individual trees of up to thirty species, eating leaves of different varying ages. Sloths live, feed, mate, and reproduce near the upper levels of the forest canopy and rarely come down from the canopy except for defecation. They often move to a new tree only to keep balance in their diet, and this is generally only every 2-3 days. Home ranges for sloth individuals can overlap considerably and females tend to be more social than the males. Sloths may prefer different food sources within the same home range, as they tend to feed on what their mothers taught them to eat while growing up.

Though large for an arboreal mammal, the three-toed sloth must also be light for it to be able to live on easily breakable branches where it can sleep for some 12-18 hours per day.  So for that reason, the sloth has overall reduced muscle mass. These unique creatures also have an enormous gut capacity, nearly 30% of their total body weight! The sloth's diet of leaves is digested very slowly, so they need a have this large capacity. Due to their slow metabolism, the sloths have thick fur to insulate them for when their body temperature drops at night.  That is why often you will spot a sloth basking in the sunlight of the day, before curling up in a ball in the tree for the night to conserve their limited energy.
When not sleeping, sloths move only when necessary and even then very slowly.  They have about a quarter as much muscle tissue as other animals of similar weight. They can move at a marginally higher speed if they are in immediate danger from a predator (4 m or 13 feet per minute for the three-toed sloth), but they burn large amounts of energy doing so. Their specialized hands and feet have long, curved claws to allow them to hang upside-down from branches without effort.  In fact, their nails are so adept that hunters can shoot a sloth and it will often remain hanging in the tree!   While they sometimes sit on top of branches, they usually eat, sleep, and even give birth hanging from limbs.
About once a week, the sloth descends from its elevated living space, digs a small hole with its stubby and erect triangular stump of a tail, defecates and urinates in the hole, then covers it with leaves using its hind legs and returning as soon as possible to its safer elevated home. This process lasts less than 30 minutes, but is the most dangerous moments in the sloths life as it is during this time the sloth is most vulnerable to predators. While mortality of young sloths is high, individuals that survive are recorded to live as long as 9-11 years in captivity, and as many as 20-30 years in the wild.

Several kinds of moths have a symbiotic relationship with this species and live as adults on the sloths. These arthropods leave the sloth to deposit their eggs once a week on the sloth's dung, at which time the hatched larvae feed on the dung, pupate, and later emerge as adults, to fly in search of another sloth to make their home. A single sloth may carry 1000 or more species of moths, beetles, mites and other small insects you do not want to share your skin (or bed) with! 
Because of the cyanobacteria and other parasites, sloth fur serves as a small ecosystem all its own.
Adult males are characterized by a patch of shorter hair on their backs that is colored pale to bright yellow, with a dorsoventral black stripe through the center. Adult females lack such a marking, so that is the easiest way to determine the sex. It is essentially impossible to distinguish the sexes of young and juvenile sloths because there is no external genitalia.

An adult female spends approximately half the year pregnant and the other half rearing her single (but on rare occasion twin) offspring. Young sloths can begin eating leaves when they are only two weeks old. As the mother carries the young with her, she shows it which trees and lianas are fit to eat within their home range and when the baby is around 6 months old, the mother suddenly leaves the young to her home-range and moves to establish her own new home range nearby. The young and mother maintain contact through vocalizations, and the young continues to use this portion of the mother's range for a while and then eventually gives up the bond and departs to live on its own.  Their home range can contain over 100 favorite types of meals for the sloth, but by far the most common would be the Cecropia (Guarumo in Spanish) tree, which also happens to be the easiest to spot these beautiful animals due to its large open limbs.

Thank Claire Trimer-Sloth Wrangler

The History of  a Costa Rican Sloth Sanctuary by Judy Arroyo:
Over twenty years ago a small sloth was brought to my door. I cupped the tiny animal in my hands and knew I had to do something. This baby sloth, who many of you know as Buttercup, was dying of starvation. Her mother was most likely dead and I was faced with a huge challenge. At the time, little was known about sloths, much less baby sloths. I was advised to let the baby go, that I would not be able to feed her, that I would only be prolonging the inevitable. I looked down at her little face and knew that I would do anything in my power to save this tiny sloth.

Buttercup had a few difficult months. Using books, common sense and intuition, I was able to concoct a diet that brought her into adulthood. Today, she holds the record of being the sloth to live the longest time in captivity. She reigns supreme over our veranda at the Sloth Sanctuary.
As the years passed, we became the “sloth people”. Orphaned and injured sloths were brought to us for rehabilitation. In 1997 we started an educational program to teach local people and tourists that baby sloths are bad pet choices. We raised awareness about poaching and habitat destruction. The Sloth Sanctuary became a gathering place and international hub for sloth research.
Today we are responsible for over 130 sloths. Many have been maimed by electric wires, or tortured by cruel humans. They require our constant attention. We love taking care of these adorable gentle animals, but we need your help.
Please consider supporting us as we care for these beautiful animals, and become a virtual member of our team. Help us raise awareness in our local community so the needless cruelty and the pain will stop. 
You can learn more about the Aviarios del Caribe Sloth Sanctuary or make a donation at  The sloths thank you!!
Also,  for those aficionados of sloths that just can't get enough of these adorable creatures, I definitely recommend you join for the latest and cutest to be found in the sloth world! 
And for those that live or will be visiting the Manuel Antonio area, please don't miss the chance to volunteer in our area at  the ever popular Kids Saving the Rainforest found at Hotel Mono Azul or check it out at!!  They can arrange individual or groups tours of the sanctuary with their resident veterinarian and helpful and enthusiastic volunteers!
Kimberly Barron, originally from Malibu, California has lived in Parismina and Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica for 20 years.  Starting as a certified tour guide, she spent 15 years managing fishing lodges on the Caribbean Coast and later 4* & 5* Hotels on the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica.  Currently semi-retired, Kimberly still works as the Marketing Director for Byblos Resort & Casino and Hotel Makanda by the Sea.
Animal Planet

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