THREE TOED SLOTH


THREE-TOED SLOTH (BRADYPUS VARIEGATUS), PEREZOSO DE TRES DEDOS, PERICO LIGERO Yes, sloths usually move slowly, but no, they do not spend their lives in a single tree. Yes, they are often seen in cecropia trees, but no, they don't feed exclusively in these trees. Some studies indicate they feed on more than 96 species of trees. Sloths are seen more often in cecropias because of the tree's open growth and because cecropias grow along roads, trails, and clearings. Arboreal animals that feed, live, and reproduce high above the forest floor, the Costa Rican brown-throated three-toed sloth has pale brown shaggy fur; a small, round head; long limbs; and three long, curved, hook-like claws on each foot. The face is light-colored, with dark stripes slanting down over the eyes and what looks like a perpetual slight smile. Males have a patch of shorter yellow hair on their backs with a black stripe down the center. Their fur may take on a greenish cast from algae that live in it.

Since the diet of leaves and fruit is relatively energy-poor, sloths have an energy-conserving lifestyle: they move slowly, have heavy fur that provides insulation, and use body postures that conserve heat. They often hang upside down by their claws or sit in tree forks with heads tucked between front legs. To get their body temperatures up, they bask in the sunlight, preferring tree crowns exposed to early morning sun.

A solitary creature, the sloth has the surprising habit of descending to the ground about once a week to defecate at the base of a tree it feeds in. It digs a slight depression in the ground with its short, stubby tail, defecates there, and goes back up the tree; the whole procedure over in 30 minutes. Though no one knows for sure why it does this, one theory is that it is the sloth's way of returning nutrients to a tree it feeds from. Since sloths tend to return time and again to favorite trees, it's a kind of investment in the tree's health.

This ritual is important in the life cycle of arthropods (mainly moths, mites, and beetles) that live on sloths as adults. For example, moths apparently leave the sloth to deposit eggs on the feces. The larvae feed on dung and form pupae among the pellets. When the adult moth emerges, it flies to the canopy in search of a sloth to live on. It is similar for the more than 900 beetles that may make their home in the fur of a single sloth.

Fairly helpless on the ground, a sloth pulls itself slowly along with its forearms on the rare occasions when it leaves the trees. Sloths can swim --I once saw one in the waters of the Tortuguero Canals.

An adult female produces about one offspring a year. She nurses it for six weeks but begins giving the baby leaves by the time it is two weeks old. The mother carries the baby for about six months, showing it the trees and lianas she feeds on. Abruptly, mother leaves the baby on its own to live in a home range where it has learned which species it may eat. If the young sloth can survive the separation stage (mortality of young sloths is high), it can live to be 20 to 50 years old. Predators include large forest eagles and jaguars; habitat destruction and hunting also affect them.

The three-toed sloth is found in moist and wet forests up to 5,900 feet (1,800 in). Look for it on the Perezoso Trail in Manuel Antonio, from Guapiles to Limon and along the Caribbean coast , and at cano Negro.

The other sloth in Costa Rica is Hoffman's two-toed sloth (Choleopus hoffmani Though larger, it is harder to see because it is nocturnal, sleeping during the day. It has two toes instead of three and lacks the three-toed male's golden back patch. Its face is different , with a longer snout and brown eye rings. It can live up to 5,900 feet (1,800 in). You might see it in Monteverde.

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