June 19th, 2009

Slothful in Panama


Soon after I arrived at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Bocas del Toro, there was a commotion outside the lab. People were gathering on the balcony with cameras and tripods. A sloth had assumed a photogenic position in the fork of a tree a dozen or so metres away. I ran to the house where I was staying to get my binoculars. As I was running I thought, “Why am I running? It’s a sloth, for goodness’ sake!”

Three-toed sloth at Smithsonian research centre in Bocas del Toro.

Three-toed sloth at Smithsonian research centre in Bocas del Toro.

Sure enough, when I arrived back at the balcony I hadn’t missed anything. The sloth was resting its head on its arms, entirely placid and apparently asleep. After a while it favoured us with a view of its face, which is dramatically marked with a black eye mask. It began to scratch its fur with its scimitar-like claws, revealing itself to be a three-toed sloth. Panama has three species: a three-toed variety (diurnal and nocturnal), a two-toed (nocturnal) and a rare pygmy sloth which lives solely in the mangroves.

I was intrigued to see that the fur had a distinctly greenish hue. One of the researchers told me that sloth hair follicles are hollow, and that algae get into them, turning them green. From an information panel directly below the sloth’s tree (clearly this was a favourite roost) I learned that sloths come down from the treetops only once a week—to defaecate. This struck me as extremely well-mannered, though inherently unslothful, behaviour.

That night we had a discussion about whether one should pronounce sloth with a long “o” as in slow or a short “o” as in top. I said I preferred the long-“o” sloth for the animal and the short-“o” sloth for the vice, but needed to investigate the matter further—which I guess would make me a sleuth.

Even a sloth needs to take time to smell the flowers.

Even a sloth needs to take time to smell the flowers.

I have come to Bocas, in the north-west corner of Panama, with a mangrove expert I first met in Belize in 2005. Candy Feller adores mangroves, and particularly a species that is found in only a few locations in Central America, known as Pelliciera rhizophorae. Over the coming days I will accompany her and her research associates Emily Dangremond and Anne Chamberlain to their study sites in the Bocas archipelago, exploring the mangrove forests and looking for pygmy sloths and any other creature that favours us with a sighting in this biodiversity hotspot.

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