Our very kind cab driver stopped in Orotina, Costa Rica en route to the lodge. Although we did not share a common language, he had something to show us in a small park. He pointed insistently to a hairy mass 50 feet up in a tree, saying words neither of us could understand.
As if it was Charades I asked, “Is it a nest?”
Without the use of language, I don’t know what he answered. Continuing to look at the mass through binoculars, my partner and I thought maybe it was a bee hive. We looked that up in our Spanish dictionary, but there was no translation. He kept talking and pointing. Then I asked a new question, “Is it a sloth?”
“Si! A sloth!”
In Costa Rica there are two species of sloths: two-toed and three-toed. Regardless of the name, both species have three toes. It is the hands of the sloth that differ in digit number, and they are not so much fingers as they are claws. We eventually saw both species in our rainforest treks.
An arboreal mammal about the size of a small dog, sloths can only be found in the rainforests of Central and South America. They are “active” 7-10 hours a day, and then they are merely chewing. They sleep the rest of the time. The majority of a sloth’s diet is leaves. This is not a big source of fuel and not easily digested, so they move lethargically. A sloth is so slow, in fact, that algae grows on its back. More sloth info here.
Always over 100 feet up and hidden in an extensive tangle of trees, leaves, and vines, these curious cousins of the anteater and armadillo were difficult to locate, and nearly impossible to photograph. They seldom come down out of the canopy, their best protection from predators.
About once a week, however, the sloth ventures down out of the canopy to use the bathroom. They climb down the tree trunk, dig a small hole in the ground with their tail, urinate and defecate, bury it, and then make the long journey back up.
The mammalian superorder that sloths come from, Xenarthra, dates back about 60 million years. And up until 10,000 years ago there were still ground sloths living in North and South America. It is amazing we still have these two species on our planet.
Before landing in Costa Rica the sloth was the mammal I most wished to see. I was told it was not very likely. Fortunately, we saw several sloths in those two weeks, but not without slogging down many muggy rainforest trails, and never without the help of a guide (or cab driver).
The sloths don’t move far, so locals know where to look. And the good news is you can stand there observing them for hours, which we did.
Photo credit: Athena Alexander