Like many Neotropical fauna, sloths are running out of room to maneuver.

As forests in South and Central America are cleared for agriculture and other human uses, populations of these arboreal leaf eaters, which depend on large trees for both food and refuge, can become isolated and at risk. But one type of sustainable agriculture, shade grown cacao plantations, a source of chocolate, could become critical refuges and bridges between intact forests for the iconic animals.

In an ongoing study in Costa Rica, wildlife biologists from the University of Wisconsin-Madison are using a complex of intact tropical forest, pasture, banana and pineapple plantations — all connected by a large shade-grown cacao farm — as a field laboratory to explore the ecology of two species of sloths in a rapidly changing environment.

“We know a lot about sloth physiology,” says Jonathan Pauli, a UW-Madison assistant professor of wildlife ecology who, with colleague Zach Peery, has established a sloth study on a private cacao farm in rural Costa Rica. “But when it comes to sloth ecology and behavior, we know almost nothing. It’s a giant black box.”

But some of that mystery is now being peeled away as studies by the Wisconsin team of both the brown-throated three-toed sloth and Hoffmann’s two-toed sloth, two fairly common species, are yielding new insights into their mating habits and how the animals transit the landscape.

The fact that sloths require forested habitat and are sedentary makes them vulnerable to the deforestation common to many parts of Central and South America, notes Peery, also a UW-Madison assistant professor of wildlife ecology. “Once a tract of tropical forest has been cleared, sloths have relatively little capacity to seek out new habitats.”

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