Posts Tagged ‘coahuita’

…it’s their fingers that count!

I just got back from a ten-day excursion to the Caribbean coasts of Panamá and Costa Rica.  I went with Sarah (from Bloodsport!) and Rachel, a resident naturalist.  The entire trip they talked about visiting the Aviarios Del Caribe Sloth Sanctuary of Costa Rica.  They had been sold on the idea by this video of a baby two-fingered sloth, recorded on-site.  They said it would be cute.

So we went.  And it was cute.

From L to R: three-fingered sloth, Sarah Wells, two-toed sloth

From L to R: three-fingered sloth, Sarah Wells, two-fingered sloth

Even the bathrooms were endearing, which is always a welcome surprise in rural Costa Rica.


Next to the bathrooms was a “Wall of Learning,” where we learned.  First, we learned that the common ancestor of modern sloths was a huge, terrestrial herbivore.  The sloths’ ancestors took to the trees to escape predators on land, and adopted a laid-back, inconspicuous lifestyle.


Geology Minute! As you can see, the Central American landmass is relatively young. It was formed by the slow collision of the Pacific Plate and the Caribbean Plate. The Pacific Plate slid beneath the Caribbean, and the ensuing underwater volcanic activity began forming islands. Indeed, the landmass known today as the Isthmus of Panama—through which we toiled to dig a canal—was but an archipelago as recently as 4 million years ago.

And second-of-ly, I learned that the animals we call “sloths” belong to two very distinct families, no more closely related to each other than they are to armadillos or anteaters:


But let’s meet some real sloths.

This is Buttercup, and she loves you.


Buttercup is a 17-year-old, three-fingered sloth, and the story of the Aviarios Sanctuary begins with her.

In 1991 the Limón earthquake destroyed the country home of Luis and Judy Arroyo.  They rebuilt it as a boutique hotel, and offered tours of their rich rain forest property.  In 1992, three neighborhood girls brought an orphaned three-fingered sloth to their doorstep.

“We named her Buttercup. Finding very little useful information about sloths, we learned from experience – and a very hefty dose of common sense! Then, another sloth arrived. And another. Before long, we became known as authorities on sloth rescue and rearing – and sloths kept coming. Buttercup became the most loved and photographed sloth in the world.”

I didn’t get to meet Mrs. Arroyo, but I met Luis when he mistook me and my companions for the new volunteers scheduled to arrive that day.   This majestic portrait of the Sloth Godfather hangs in the gift shop, and it says more than I could hope to about a man with whom I spoke only briefly.


Let’s say goodbye to Buttercup for now, and go check on the little ones.


Bye, Buttercup

The sanctuary is home to more than 150 sloths, including more than a dozen babies in warm, fluffy, slowly churning heaps.  Since sloths reared together in captivity do not breed, these babies were orphaned, either in the wild or in captivity, born to dying mothers brought to the sanctuary too late.


This is Fozzy, a two-fingered toddler:

waka waka

waka waka!

Fozzy is about 11 months old, I think, which is toddler-age for a sloth.  I might be talking out of my ass here, but I can’t be that far off.  Sloths reach adulthood around age 3, and they can live beyond 30.  Fozzy is particularly rambunctious; he continually pawed at our tour guide and twice sallied from his crate, languidly craning to bite her arm.


His roommates were chiller:


Sloths are natural-born yawners

So what’s the difference between two fingers and three, besides a finger, smartasses?  Well, I’ll let Wikipedia help me tell you about both.  I hope you learn something.

First, Choloepus hoffmanni, known commonly as the two-fingered sloth.

Two-toed sloths spend most of their time in trees, though they may travel on the ground to move to a new tree, and are excellent swimmers. They are strictly nocturnal, moving slowly through the canopy after dark, munching on leaves. The name “sloth” means “lazy,” but the slow movements of this animal are actually an adaptation for surviving on a low-energy diet of leaves. These sloths have half the metabolic rate of a mammal of the same size. Sloths have very poor eyesight and hearing, and rely almost entirely on their senses of touch and smell to find food.”

Note: While adult two-fingered sloths are strictly nocturnal, juveniles are often awake and active during daylight hours.

Asleep.  What a surprise.

Two toes = sleep during the day (nocturnal)

Two-toed sloths hang from tree branches, suspended by their huge, hook-like claws, which are two to three inches long. Sloths sometimes are found hanging off trees after they die. Nearly everything a sloth does, including eating, sleeping, mating, and giving birth, is done while hanging from the branches in the trees. The only time that sloths are normally found right side up is when they go down to the ground to defecate, which they only do about once every 5 days.”

Another note: when sloths do defecate, they can lose up to one third of their body weight.  Whoosh!


Sloths have many predators, including the jaguar, eagles, and large snakes. If threatened, sloths can defend themselves by slashing out at a predator with their huge claws or biting with their sharp cheek teeth. However, a sloth’s main defense is to avoid being attacked in the first place. The two-toed sloth can survive wounds that would be fatal to another mammal its size.

The sloth’s slow, deliberate movements and algae-covered fur make them difficult for predators to spot from a distance. Their treetop home is also out of reach for many larger predators. Their long, coarse fur also protects them from sun and rain. Their fur, unlike other mammals, flows from belly to top, not top to belly. This is so that when it rains, and they are hanging upside down, the rain slides off the fur easily.”

Yes, he's sucking his fingers

Yes, he's sucking his fingers

And three-fingered sloths?  I’m borrowing part of the Wikipedia entry for Bradypus variegatus, or the brown-throated sloth, one of several species of three-fingered sloth, and the most common in my area.

It is the most widespread and common species of the group, being found in many different kinds of environments, including evergreen and dry forests and in highly perturbed natural areas.

It is a solitary, nocturnal and diurnal animal, feeding on leaves of many species of trees.

The female of the species is known to emit a loud, shrill scream during the mating season to attract males. It is a cry that sounds like “ay ay”. This scream has been remarked to sound exactly like that of a woman screaming. The male can be identified by a black stripe surrounded by orange fur on its back between the shoulders.”

We did indeed hear that scream, and I was shocked that a docile creature like Buttercup could make such a racket.


Three fingers = active during the day (diurnal)

Note how her neck is twisted in the photo above.  Three-fingered sloths can turn their heads up to 270 degrees, which is helpful when you spend life upside-down.  This remarkable ability is facilitated by extra vertebrae, visible in the photo below.


The Brown-throated sloth has grayish-brown to beige color fur and it is very coarse and stiff. A sloth has a round head and on it there are two eyes, a blunt nose, peg-like teeth, and ears that are not visible. The tail of a sloth is very small.

Over parts of its range, the Brown-throated Sloth overlaps the range of Hoffmann’s Two-toed Sloth. Where this overlap occurs, the three-toed sloth tends to be smaller and more numerous than its relative, being more active in moving through the forest and maintaining more diurnal activity.”

But that’s not all!  Three-fingered sloths are ecosystems.  Somewhat like the cecropia tree (which is only slightly less mobile) three-fingered sloths host a symbiotic commonwealth of beetles, moths, molds and algae that thrives within their nappy fur.

The algae and mold naturally camouflage the sloth by turning it green.  Insects feed on the algae, including a species of moth, Bradipodicola hahneli, more commonly called the “sloth moth.”  The sloth moth lays its eggs in the sloth’s poop.  The eggs later hatch and the brood flies off to find another sloth.  Miraculous.

The sloths at the sanctuary are algae-free because they don’t get wet all the time the way they would in the wild.  This hardly diminishes their quality of life, as sloths have been known to starve to death in the wild during prolonged periods of rain.  That’s right⎯starve. Sloths need to keep warm in order to nourish the good bacteria in their bellies that help digest the pounds upon pounds of leaves they eat.  If they can’t get warm, they can’t digest their food.  Sloths can starve to death with full bellies.

With the Internets as my witnesses, I anoint you all sloth experts.  Now let me show you my baby pictures:



Sleepy Sloth (VIDEO)

Yes, that's a teddy bear

Yes, he's cuddling a teddy bear



This itsy-bitsy baby sloth arrived at the sanctuary with fungus in his fur, so he got shaved.  To keep him warm, special jammies were made from socks.


That does look cozy.




Sweet dreams.


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