Sloths populations often experience habitat loss in their native areas of Central and South America, and these creatures do not always have the capabilities and resources to seek out new refuge when their home forest is cut down. Researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison are aiming to help find a solution for these tree-dwelling mammals.

The team has established a field laboratory in Costa Rica to observe brown-throated three-toed sloths and Hoffmann’s two-toed sloths. The setup is fairly complex — consisting of intact tropical forest, pasture, as well as banana, pineapple and shade-grown cacao plantations — to imitate the changing landscape in Central America.

Using this observation method, researchers were able to monitor sloths and determine which environments could be suitable refuges or habitats. Though neither species cared at all for the banana or pineapple plantations, both the three-toed and two-toed sloths gravitated toward the shade-grown cacao. The diverse network of tall trees providing shade for the cacao plants allowed the sloths to feel at home. The next step is to compare populations in intact forests with those in cacao plantations to determine if the shade-grown plantation could become a suitable habitat instead of simply a refuge.

“Beyond the basic science, understanding how shade-grown agriculture can benefit sensitive tropical animals such as sloths is highly relevant, considering the ongoing and rapid loss of biodiversity in the Neotropics,” said Jonathan Pauli, a UW-Madison assistant professor of wildlife ecology. “What kinds of ecological services can these already altered landscapes provide? Can we mitigate future biodiversity loss with a greater emphasis on shade-grown agricultural systems than crops grown in monocultures? That’s the future we’re facing.”

This research will provide insight about how we should approach future development and conservation in Central America. Sloths’ sedentary nature allows for easy observation, and measures taken to protect them could benefit other creatures that are harder to study.

Main photo credit: Leyo