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From Wildlife Extra:
First population census of Critically Endangered pygmy three-toed sloth
In search of the pygmy sloth
May 2012. A group of tiny sloths living on an uninhabited island will finally counted, after a team from the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) conducted the first ever population census of the pygmy three-toed sloth (Bradypus pygmaeus).
Only found on 1 small island
The team undertook a nine-day expedition to Escudo Island, 17km off the coast of Panama, which is the only place in the world where the sloths are found. There, they conducted the first detailed population and habitat survey of the area, and spent time monitoring the unique behaviours of the world’s slowest mammal.
16th most endangered mammal
At half the size of their mainland cousins, and weighing roughly the same as a newborn baby, pygmy sloths are the smallest and slowest sloths in the world. They are ranked at number 16 on the EDGE of Existence mammals list and remain critically endangered.
ZSL’s David Curnick says: “Very little is known about this species. Current population estimates are, at a best guess, less than 500, but this is only based on anecdotal evidence. We’ve collected data for the first time to get an accurate picture of how many pygmy sloths are left in the world.”
More endemic species
Escudo is an unpopulated island fringed by mangrove forests, and roughly the size of New York’s Central Park. As well as sloths, it is known to be home to several other endemic species, including the neotropical fruit bat (Artibeus incomitatus) and the maritime worm salamander (Oedipina maritime), but very little is known about its wildlife, and the island remains largely unexplored.
As well as using bromeliad leaves as an umbrella to protect themselves from extreme weather, pygmy sloths appear to use mangrove trees as a tool to regulate their body temperatures – on cooler days they climb to higher spots to catch the sun, and when they get too hot they head down again to find a shadier spot.
Maybe fewer than 100 left alive
The team’s current data suggests that there could be fewer than 100 pygmy sloths left, making them one of the most endangered mammals in the world. The exact reasons for this decline are not yet known, but they found several areas where their critical mangrove habitats have been cut down.
Dr. Craig Turner from ZSL added: “The mangrove forests are relatively hard to penetrate, and from a sloth’s perspective they provide protection from aerial predators. We noticed that pygmy sloth mothers carrying young would remain low in trees, which may be an evolutionary hangover for predator evasion. However, hunting, mangrove cutting and tourism are all listed as threats to these sloths and their behaviour may now be putting them at higher risk.”
Conservationists from ZSL are currently analysing their data, and aim to publish the findings in the next few months. The team hopes to appoint and train an in-country EDGE fellow later in the year, and they will continue their monitoring and work within the local communities to establish the main threats to the species and develop plans to protect them.
Pygmy Three-Toed Sloth
The pygmy three-toed sloth was only recognised as a distinct species in 2001. It can only be found on Isla Escudo de Veraguas, which has been separated from mainland Panama for 9,000 years. Famous for its slow movements the pygmy three-toed sloth is ideally suited to life in the mangroves and is surprisingly good at swimming. The major threat to the pygmy three-toed sloth is habitat destruction which is reducing the size of its already small habitat.