Searching for the Elusive Maned Sloths of Brazil

Searching for the Elusive Maned Sloths of Brazil

If you are a fan of sloths, you might think that there are two main types:

  1. Two-fingered sloths with their blonde fur and quintessential pig-like noses. There are two different species within the Choloepus genus.
  2. Three-fingered sloths with their mottled grey fur and iconic black ‘masks’ around the eyes. There are currently four different species of three-fingered sloth all grouped together within the Bradypus genus. 

But scientists are starting to realize that there is actually a third type of sloth. One that has the size, strength, and ferocity of a two-fingered sloth, but the physical appearance of a three-fingered sloth.

 

maned sloth brazil
Photo: Cecilia Pamich – The Sloth Conservation Foundation

 

It is a species that no one really knows anything about, and one that scientists think is so unique that it might belong in a completely separate genus (called Scaeopus).

These are the maned sloths of Brazil, and they are the most endangered species among the continental sloths. 

What are maned sloths? 

Maned sloths (Bradypus torquatus) are technically a species of three-fingered sloth, but they look and behave very differently to the three-fingered sloths that you might be used to.

Current research suggests that they separated off from the other sloth species approximately 19 million years ago and have been evolving independently ever since. 

 

maned sloth taxonomy brazil
Current Taxonomy and phylogenetics of Xenarthrans. The green circle shows the moment when maned sloths split off from the other species of three-fingered sloths / Image: Professor Gastón Giné

 

Unlike the other species of three-fingered sloths, the maned sloths are much larger with brown, fuzzy fur, and dark, hairless pads on their hands and feet (similar to the hands of two-fingered sloths).

 

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The hand and foot of a maned sloth. /Photos: Cecilia Pamich – The Sloth Conservation Foundation

 

They lack the iconic black mask around the eyes and male maned sloths do not develop a speculum.

 

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Instead, both males and females of this species have spectacular long black manes of hair that tumble down around their necks and shoulders.

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Maned Sloth with a GPS backpack / Photo: Cecilia Pamich/ Sloth Conservation Foundation

 

Working together to save sloths

While our SloCo headquarters are based in Costa Rica, we are committed to conserving and protecting all 6 extant species of sloth that are found throughout South and Central America. 

Last month we were delighted to form an exciting new collaboration with Professor Gaston Giné and the Instituto Tamandua in Brazil to carry out important new research into maned sloth ecology.  

 

Maned sloth brazil
Professor Gastón Giné putting a GPS backpack on a maned sloth

 

Professor Gaston Giné has been researching maned sloths for over 10 years and much of what we know today about these sloths stems from the results of his work. He is a professor and researcher at the Applied Ecology and Conservation Lab of the Santa Cruz State University’s Biological Sciences department, and a research collaborator of the Instituto Tamandua.

Instituto Tamandua is a Non-Governmental Organization that works directly in the research and conservation of all Xenarthra species in Brazil (sloths, anteaters, and armadillos). Flavia Miranda, the founder and director of Instituto Tamandua, is the deputy chair of the IUCN Anteater, Sloth, and Armadillo Specialist Group.

Together with Professor Gaston Giné, Instituto Tamandua coordinates research into the maned sloths. 

 

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Flavia Miranda, founder of Instituto Tamandua, working on a Giant Anteater in Brazil. Her research in the past 15 years has been very important for the conservation of sloths, armadillos, and anteaters, including the discovery of 6 new species of silky anteaters!/ Photo: Facebook Instituto Tamandua

Due to the ongoing impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, funding for wildlife research and conservation has become scarce as government resources are directed elsewhere. This crisis has left maned sloth research and conservation projects in Brazil vulnerable and in danger of running out of resources. 

Thanks to the generous support of our donors, we are happy to have been able to provide funding for 10 new state-of-the-art GPS sloth backpacks that will be used by Gaston Giné and the Instituto Tamandua to continue their important work and better understand the ecological requirements, habitat preference, and movement patterns of this vulnerable species. 

 

Maned sloth brazil
Professor Gastón Giné releasing a maned sloth with a GPS backpack.

Team Sloth travels to Brazil 

In March 2021, SloCo founder Dr. Rebecca Cliffe travelled to Brazil with two other members of Team Sloth (Cecilia Pamich and Patricio Silfeni), to deliver the new GPS backpacks and learn more about the maned sloths.

They travelled to the Reserva de Sapiranga, near Praia do Forte, where they met up with Gaston, his son Caian, and professional tree climber (and expert sloth spotter) Cosme Guimarães a.k.a. Coy.

 

maned sloth reserva sapiranga
One of the rangers helping with the radio tracking of maned sloths.

 

For 7 days the team spent from sunrise until sunset hiking through the reserve searching for the elusive maned sloths. Some sloths were already being monitored by Gaston and needed to have their old backpacks replaced, but a lot of the sloths were new additions to the project.

 

Maned sloth brazil
It took almost 2 hours to spot this sloth. The signal from his radio collar was strong, but he was impossible to see until he moved into the open.

 

Every time a sloth was found, Coy would quickly scale the tree and carry the sloth safely down to the ground where important body measurement data would be collected by the team. The new backpack would be fitted, and a brightly colored ribbon would be attached to the back to act as a visual marker for identification.

 

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This individual was identified as ‘Pablo’ and has a bright yellow ribbon on his backpack.

 

maned sloths brazil
 Neither the backpack nor the ribbon interfere with the activities of the sloth.

The sloths didn’t need to be anesthetized for the procedure as it was quick and simple, but it was necessary to use special Velcro mittens to cover the fingers and toes to prevent injury to the team.

 

Maned sloth brazil
Professor Gaston Giné and Dr. Rebecca Cliffe taking measurements. Velcro mittens are being used for safety.

 

During the course of the week, they managed to put GPS backpacks on 8 maned sloths (and mistakenly tried to capture a lot of termite nests that looked suspiciously like sloths)! 

 

maned sloth
Sapiranga reserve. The pale green dot was our base, and the yellow dots were the areas where we found the sloths.

Silent Rainforests

During their time in Brazil, the team were eager to learn more about the conservation problems being faced by maned sloths and to see how they could provide more help in the future.  

Having come from Costa Rica (where sloths are literally falling from the trees and climbing through people’s houses), they were shocked to discover how few maned sloths there were inhabiting the Brazilian forest reserves.

The maned sloths they found were also all very shy, hiding at the tops of the tallest trees and moving higher when they heard the sound of approaching humans. This is in stark contrast to the sloths in Costa Rica that tend to ignore people completely and often wander unfearfully into urban areas (and therefore get themselves into trouble). 

 

Maned sloth brazil

 

Finally, and perhaps most shockingly, the team were spooked by the eerie silence that followed them through the rainforest reserve where they were working. Upon entering a Costa Rican forest, you will reliably be greeted by the deafening hum of insects, screeching of parrots, and howling of monkeys. The rainforest feels and sounds alive. In the Reserva de Sapiranga of Brazil, the rainforest felt and sounded empty.  

 

atlantic forest maned sloth brazil
The Atlantic Forest (Mata Atlantica) has suffered the impacts of human development.

 

At first, they thought this difference was perhaps normal: the Atlantic forests are drier than the wet, humid rainforests of Costa Rica and so biodiversity is understandably different.  But as the week progressed, it became apparent that poaching and human disturbances are big problems in this region. The team stumbled across several different poaching traps, and they noticed platforms that had been erected in trees where poachers would hide. 

 

Why are maned sloths endangered? 

While it is unlikely that people go out specifically to hunt sloths, it is known that sloths are opportunistically poached for food in some areas (on a recent trip to Guyana we discovered that sloth meat is regularly sold in illegal markets there).

Over time, it seems likely that opportunistic poaching may have contributed to the shy nature and low numbers of maned sloths remaining in the wild. However, this is certainly not the only problem. 

 

No photo description available.

 

Maned sloths have a very restricted range – they can only be found in a small strip of forest on the Atlantic coast of Brazil. Over 93% of these Atlantic forests have been lost in recent years due to deforestation for cattle pastures and plantations of sugar cane, cocoa, coffee, and eucalyptus.

maned sloth distribuition
Maned Sloth Distribution / Image: Instituto Tamandua – Ivy Nunes

 

As a result, maned sloths are severely affected by habitat loss, and the remaining forest reserves where they live are extremely fragmented and isolated. 

 

maned sloth habitat
The area surrounding the Sapiranga Reserve shows high levels of deforestation.

How to help the maned sloths

In order to safeguard a future for the remaining maned sloth populations, a multifaceted conservation approach that engages and empowers local communities is required. 

An important first step in the development of any conservation strategy is to properly understand the biological and ecological requirements of the species that you are trying to conserve. Without this knowledge, any attempt to mitigate the problems will likely be ineffective and short-lived. 

We are hopeful that the GPS technology that we have provided will help to increase current knowledge about maned sloths, and we look forward to developing further conservation strategies with our partners in Brazil to help maned sloths in the future. 

 

team sloth brazil
Cecilia Pamich, Cosme Guimarães, Gastón Giné, Rebecca Cliffe, and Patricio Silfeni after a full day of sloth scouting and backpacking.

 

We would like to say a special thank you to Professor Gastón Giné, Instituto Tamandua, Applied Ecology and Conservation Lab of the Santa Cruz State University’s Biological Sciences department, Prefeitura de Mata de São João, the rangers of Sapiranga Reserve, and all the lovely people that shared their knowledge and experiences with us throughout our trip!

 

maned sloth team

 

-Rebecca Cliffe

Founder and Executive Director