Jakob Shockey: Pygmy Sloths of Panama

Jakob recently spent three months on the remote Isla Escudo just off Panama studying the newly discovered Pygmy Three-Toed Sloth, here’s his story

Name: Jakob Shockey

Species: Pygmy Three-Toed Sloth (Bradypus pygmaeus)

Location: Isla Escudo de Veraguas, Panama

Twitter: @

Bio: A recent graduate from The Evergreen State College, in Olympia Washington and currently working in Oregon to reintroduce the American Beaver to native wetland and riparian habitat. As a wildlife biologist and writer, I work to help facilitate a candid collaboration between the scientific, conservation and indigenous/local communities in managing wildlife and wildness.

Can you tell us about the beautiful island that you visited for this research?

Isla Escudo de Veraguas, Panama. This small island (just 4.3 km2) is located 17.6 km into the Caribbean and lays within the indigenous Ngöbe-Buglé Comarca region of Panama.

It is a low neotropical island of dense underbrush, mangrove swamps and a coral reef that wraps thickly around the Northern coast. Isla Escudo supports many endemic species including the pygmy three-toed sloth. There are a few small fishing camps that are occasionally inhabited by fishermen who come primarily to dive for lobster, which is sold to the neighboring Bocas del Toro region’s tourist industry.

And of course, tell us about the Sloth?

The pygmy three-toed sloth (Bradypus pygmaeus) seems to depend on the intertidal mangrove thickets of Isla Escudo and is considered a critically endangered species by the IUCN. It’s about 40% smaller than the mainland species of three-toed sloth and was only discovered to science in 2001. Consequently there are many holes in our knowledge of their natural history or the condition of their population.

Myself and two other undergraduates, Sam Kaviar and Peter Sundberg, decided to address the latter gap and organized a three month expedition to conduct the first population census.

ABOVE: Jakob Shockey (far right) and team, Sam Kaviar and Peter Sundberg on expedition in Panama.
"In planning this project, there were so many logistics and hypotheses, dire predictions, and scientific turf battles. But none of that drama existed in the pygmy sloth’s quiet world of mangrove trees."

What were the highlights and challenges in a project like this?

Hanging out with the sloths. The best part of any wildlife fieldwork is the moments I spend watching the animals move through their worlds. In planning this project, there were so many logistics and hypotheses, dire predictions, and scientific turf battles. But none of that drama existed in the pygmy sloth’s quiet world of mangrove trees. They lived in a reality of long afternoon naps and quietly browsing off the tips of mangrove leaves. I most enjoyed getting a glimpse of this daily routine.

Coconuts in the field. There are few pleasures like daily meals when conducting strenuous fieldwork. Going in, we bought 30 lbs of lentils and 50 lbs of rice, which we ate at dinner and breakfast times. But for lunch we’d split coconuts from their husks, drink their liquid and carve the bright white meat out with our pocketknives.

Isolation in a corner of our planet. As a kid, I’d find old maps and plan expeditions to what seemed its most remote place shown. On Escudo, it felt like we’d really done that. In the evening, I remember walking out onto a dock that was part of a rarely inhabited fishing camp and sitting on its farthest point. In the water all round me, bioluminescence sparkled in thousands of tiny green points. And, out past the break-line of waves upon the coral, stars glinted back.

Los Chitres y Picas. There were sand fleas, or chitres, that swarmed from the sand during the evening and morning by the thousands on Escudo. They look like something that just hopped off a cat, and are impossible to find as they bite into any exposed skin. The locals slather Johnson’s baby oil over their arms and legs when exposed to chitres, which keeps them from getting at your skin.

Picas, or so our team christened them, are the fiberglass like Silica splinters left after the breakdown of invertebrate marine life. These are normally pulverized to powder by waves and sand, but in the quiet mud of Escudo’s mangrove swamps these painful fragments are suspended intact. And sharp. They are also impossible to locate and remove from red and swelling skin.

ABOVE: Paddling through Mangroves on the Isla Escudo de Veraguas, Panama.

1) Work with the locals. Seriously, the local community knows the most about your work environment and its risks. The mainland town of Kusapin has knowledgeable boat captains/guides (<$100 a day), housing (for about $10 a day), and even a restaurant. As international guests, we can incentivize the conservation of Isla Escudo simply through spending our expedition dollars locally and making it clear we have come for the islands intact biodiversity.

2) Pack simply. This is a remote place to work, and you should see it as packing for an expedition. That said; there are no mainland roads and you will be carrying everything you brought – often. The weight of your pack(s) will have a direct impact on how much fun you have. Bring a camera (with some method of recharging or replacing the batteries), binoculars, mosquito net, light cook stove, water purification (for water on Escudo), first aid/med kit and a few paperback books. If you can fit them, bring a mask and fins as snorkeling off Escudo is stunning. Once your in Panama; buy a tarp, machete, rope and hammock (all way cheaper in country).

3) Dress for success. Cotton doesn’t fare well in the neotropics. I wore a few light-weight marino T-shirts exclusively for three months, with no stink problems. I also brought two pairs of quick-dry field pants, a long sleeve wool shirt (for cold nights and a pillow). High rubber boots are a must for in the field (for vipers), and it’s important to bring enough socks and underwear as these fall apart rather quickly (again, go for wool – it’s worth it).

4) Be aware. At first glance Isla Escudo is a tropical paradise with palms, sand and turquoise water. However, its an edgy place to spend the night and its important to be aware of yourself and surroundings all the time. Sudden storms come up fast and almost daily in this region, and these can be dangerous if your caught in transit on the ocean. Columbian drug traffickers use Escudo as a stopping point and local fishermen have been killed in interactions with them. There are also caimans, eyelash vipers and other dangers on the island. It’s worth renting a satellite phone for emergencies and any other need to contact the outside world.

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