Wednesday, 15 April 2009

sloths and sloth rescue

The first time I saw a sloth I was taken aback by its strangeness: the length of its forearms, the broad grin, the slowness of its reach. Days later I found an arm, decaying and sea soaked and was amazed by how similar it seemed to my own, and how alien it looked ending in sharp talons rather than a hand. I became able to spot the three fingered sloths high in trees sitting sagely watching the world, and came to regard them as benevolent forces in the rainforest, silent watchers of the world: their unending smiles a reflection that indeed all would be well.

There are two types of sloth in Costa Rica: the Pale throated three toed sloth (Bradypus tridactylus) and Hoffman's Two toed sloth (Choloepus hoffmanni). They are as closely related to one another as they are to their cousins the anteaters and the armadillos. The three toed is diurnal, and the two toed nocturnal.

The sloth is a fascinating creature and a monument to natural survival. Central and South America was once home to giant ground sloths as big as elephants which were hunted to extinction. However the species adapted to save itself, resulting in the varieties of two and three toed sloths which are seen today. The sloth has scaled the trees, diminished greatly in size and taken on several protective aspects which have ensured its survival.

The three-toed sloth

Almost everything about a sloth is slow (they scratch at normal speed), and for good reason – energy conservation. Their diet of leaves, twigs and buds provides little protein or energy and they lack any enzyme to break down the cellulose present in the leaves. Sloth digestion is very slow – it takes about 4 weeks for food to move through their system, and they rely, as Howler Monkeys, on internal fermentation to release nutrients.

Due to their slow metabolism, sloths have low, though variable, body temperatures. They are easy to spot in the early morning as they must find a warm open area to soak up the sun. The sun provides the energy and heat to raise their body temperatures and boost their fermentation process. During wet seasons, especially when there are many cloudy days, sloths can die from starvation even with full stomachs because they don't have the heat to ferment their food. It takes 4 weeks for the sloth to digest one meal.

While a sloth feeds from as many as 40 trees, they will spend most of their time in just a few and each will have a favourite tree. In Costa Rica the Cecropia tree is called the sloth tree as these are often the best places to spot sloths. The Cercropia is not everyone’s favourite, but they do seem favoured by many and the tree’s open branches and large, fairly sparse leaves allow for good sloth spotting.

Once a week the sloth will descend from the safety of the canopy to urinate and defecate. The three toed sloth digs a small hole with its tail, and when finished with his weekly business will cover the hole with leaves. A sloth will routinely shed about a third of his body weight in his weekly visit. Coming down to the ground is a dangerous business, the sloth moves very slowly down and back up the tree often using the opportunity to change trees. His speed could be seen as a method of protecting himself – already well camouflaged , his slow movements do not alert any would be predators of his whereabouts. Burying his waste would also help disguise his presence.

Sloths have thick shaggy coats which act as insulation for their low body heat. The hairs are very unusual in that they have cracks (three toed sloth) or channels (two toed sloths) which provide an ideal environment for certain types of green algae. This algae grows throughout the fur and gives an overall green tinge to the coat. No-one really knows why this relationship exists but it is thought to act as camouflage. It is also believed that the algae is able to pass nutrients to the sloth through his skin. The coat also provides a home for the sloth moth, beetles and mites. Each adult sloth can play host to 100 moths and a thousand beetles. The entire life cycle of beetle and moth is connected with the sloth, each spending its larval period in sloth dung, and their adult period eating the algae. What the sloth gets out of this special relationship we don’t quite know.

The two toed sloth

The two toed sloth is nocturnal and very difficult to spot: during the day he curls his head to his belly and looks like part of the tree he's sleeping in. The two toed are omnivorous and have sharp canines, it's believed they will eat lizards and birds or eggs when they find them in the trees. The metabolism of the two toed is different from that of the three toed, being nocturnal it cannot rely on the sun to aid fermentation. The two toed survives better in captivity, where it is a more gregarious and social creature than its three toed cousin.

The biggest threats facing sloths in Costa Rica are loss of habitat, electrical wires and poaching.

Aviarios is an incredible sloth resource and rescue center here on the Caribbean coast. Beginning over 17 years ago with the rescue of Buttercup, the center has gradually become the foremost research establishment for sloths worldwide. Visitors can meet several adult and baby rescued sloths and enjoy their calm presence. It's a wonderful place to visit and offers sloth adoption to help with the costs of caring for these animals.

dog day

We have an ongoing problem with fleas. We've gone through the regular methods: bathing, treatments, feeding - but over a period of 20 years in this isolated spot the fleas have become resistant. Our latest effort seems to be working, albeit slowly. Each morning I'm massaging oregano oil diluted in vegetable oil into the skin around tails, on bellies and legs. The fleas either die or become slow enough to pull off and kill. The dogs smell great. Three of them enjoy it, but Lyla does all that she can to get under the house and roll in the dirt. She reappears with two dirt circles around her eyes, a sort of crazy-lady makeup.

Tuesday, 14 April 2009

new arrivals

It's been a week of new arrivals: a friend visiting from the States brought baggage full of wonderful treasures and it's taken us time to sort through everything. Most important were the live cultures and mold spores for shiitake, tempeh and koji, all of which arrived safely.

The shiitake spores are now inoculated into several logs of laurel and macadamia. It was a process finding the right logs - the correct balance of heart and sapwood, the perfect ratio of bark, wood density and age are all important factors in selection. One wants logs which are easy enough to transport, plus the larger the log the longer it takes for the mycelium to fully colonize - and the further away the mushroom harvest. We selected differing sizes to stagger harvest times and to see which type and size is most suitable to our climate and temperature. Trees have anti-fungal properties which weaken as the trees die, allowing nature to take her course and the wood to become home to decomposers. Thus we had to find logs which were dead, but not so dead that they already housed a host of fungi types. Many of the logs lying around here in the tropics are still alive and will sprout new growth from bark or tips: it took time even here on the farm to find suitable pieces. Another issue is finding logs which are termite free - we want our mycelium to feed on the wood, not insects! Finally we had enough for our 300 dowels laden with shiitake mycelium. It was then a case of drilling holes, hammering in the dowels and sealing with wax (I melted down Stockmar beeswax crayons from my former life). Now the logs are sitting below some hefty heliconia plants in good shade just by the kitchen. We'll hopefully be eating mushrooms from them in a few months. Very excited! Cultivating mushrooms will close the circle here on the farm, more on that later.

My fresh tempeh starter is wonderful, and the koji? Well I'm very excited about the koji and look forward to making our own miso and amazake, but the next week or so is very busy with the reforestation project and so my forays into Aspergillus oryzae will have to wait.

Another wonderful new arrival at the farm is our new beagle, Duku. Duku is already 7 months old and super sweet. Right now he is running madly all over, nose to the ground and short legs bounding through the foliage taking it all in. Must be lovely to be a puppy.

Thursday, 2 April 2009

water apple blossom

These are petals from the Manzana de agua blossoms, covering the ground. Not so much like fallen apple blossoms from further north, but just as beautiful . . .

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

Mango Season

It's Mango season and I'm up to my elbows in soft sweet splendidly golden pulp. Although we have a couple of mango trees on the farm, and they are easily spotted all around the area, they do not produce well in this climate. Mangoes like a long dry period to set and ripen their fruit and there's just too much rain here.

The mangoes I'm using come from the Pacific side, around Orotino. There are many farms but even more locals with a few trees selling their produce by the roadsides. The harvest began about 6 weeks ago and will continue until the first real rains, sometime in May.

Mango trees (Mangifera indica) are really rather beautiful. They are native to India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and South east Asia. There they can grow very tall - over 90 feet and live very long, productive lives, some still fruiting at the ripe old age of 300! The mango is an evergreen with long (up to 12 inch) glossy, narrow dark green leaves. The flowers form on spikes and are small and white to cream coloured. They have a pleasant, sweet smell. The tree branches very nicely and can have a 30 foot crown: they provide good shade. In Costa Rica the trees are smaller and there are several cultivars, with three prominent varieties: Tommy Atkins, Haden and Erwin. We are using the Tommy and Haden fruits: the mangoes are a good size, with a small seed and soft non fibrous flesh. They are also very pretty - when I lived in California I raised lovebirds and the colours in my kitchen remind me of a small flock. I do believe my first bird was named Mango.

The mangoes we're using are ripe, but traditionally here mangoes are eaten green with salt and lime juice. There are many opportunities to buy small bags of sour, juicy fruit with a wedge of lime and a good pinch of salt from street vendors. Seemingly mango like this is very good for the digestion. I know the monkeys prefer them like this too, if the forest floor is anything to go by.

At last, after what seems like a long resting period, my dehydrators are busy again drying mango, salak and weekend bananas. We're also making mango chutney:

2 1/2 lbs mangoes
2 cups brown sugar
2 1/2 cups vinegar
2 1/2 tablespoons salt
2 inch piece ginger
1 scotch bonnet chili (or to taste)
4 cloves garlic
2 teaspoons coriander seed
2 teaspoons mustard seed
3 onions, chopped

Peel and dice the mangoes. In a blender process chopped chili, garlic and ginger with a little of the vinegar. Heat rest of vinegar with sugar, simmer for 10 minutes. Stir in the garlic / chili / ginger paste and cook for a further 10 minutes, stirring. Add remaining ingredients and allow to simmer for 25 minutes stirring occasionally as it thickens. Pour into sterilized glass jars and heat seal. Enjoy on homemade crackers with cream cheese, or with anything really.