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© Sam Trull in Slothlove
© Sam Trull in Slothlove

RIP Monster, the Beloved Sloth Who Inspired a Scientist

© Sam Trull in Slothlove
© Sam Trull in Slothlove

A few months ago we introduced you to Sam Trull, a zoologist in Costa Rica who had taken on an incredibly difficult job: teaching orphaned baby sloths how to be wild. We delved into both sloth science and Trull's deeply committed, intimate care of these unique creatures that, from a scientific perspective, remain largely mysterious. We also created a Facebook-exclusive video featuring photos from Trull's excellent photography book, Slothlove, which documents her work with (and, clearly, love of) sloths. In short, we couldn't get enough of these sloths—and judging from the huge response to our coverage, neither could you.

Which is why we're now sharing some sad news: Monster, one of Trull's sloth stars, was recently attacked and killed by an ocelot.

Monster, a three-toed sloth, was just two weeks old when she came into Trull's care after having been rescued from the middle of a road. I met Monster—and Trull—in Costa Rica two years ago at Kids Saving the Rainforest, a rescue and rehab center for wildlife near Manuel Antonio, on the Pacific coast.

"Met" is the wrong term though; in her efforts to keep the sloths as wild as possible, Trull kept almost all the sloths out of sight and completely forbade any interaction between them and visitors (and most staff) of the wildlife rescue center. I lucked out during my visit, because Trull had taken Monster into a windowed lab with her while she tended to Tommy, a newborn baby howler monkey she wore strapped to her chest for hours on end. Our primate relatives need constant contact when they're young as much as our human newborns do, so Trull wore Tommy all day, every day.

In the video below, you can see baby Monster sitting in a basket serenely nibbling on hibiscus flowers while Trull feeds Tommy through a syringe. Trull is also a trained primatologist who spent years working with lemurs, so simultaneously tending to both Tommy and Monster—very different animals with very different needs—wasn't as strange as it may seem at first glance. It was impressive though.

Shortly after I shot this video, Trull and I sat down for a lengthy and fascinating interview. (She didn't wear Tommy to the interview; despite acting as his monkey mom, she was trying to keep him wild too, so my presence would have been problematic.) Her ambitious sloth rescue-rehab-release program—the main initiative of her newly launched nonprofit, The Sloth Institute Costa Rica—was in the late planning stages and hadn't really gotten off the ground yet. So there wasn't much to report on.

Yet for the next two years, her work stuck with me; it seemed like research that would push the envelope on both wild animal release and sloth science. People had attempted to release rescued sloths back into the wild before. It was largely a death sentence.

During that time, I checked in periodically with Trull to see how the project was progressing. She had created a sloth "boot camp": an enclosed, protected patch of forest where the animals could learn how to forage, among other essential skills, before being released back into the wild to fend for themselves. When I learned earlier this year that the first sloths to "complete" the boot camp were going to be released into the rainforest, I knew it was finally time to go full sloth for mental_floss readers.

The first sloths to be released were Kermit and Ellie. Monster, now 2.5 years old, followed suit soon after. Before Monster was released, Trull told me that she was both nervous and excited that her "slothy soulmate" would be living wild for the first time since she was just two weeks old. “Releasing her will be very emotional," she said. "But it’s also very amazing and reassuring to see their instincts kick in with certain things. At least they’re coming at this with some knowledge, and I don’t have to teach them everything. But to see them learn everything I’ve taught them is very rewarding as well.”

Monster survived for months on her own before the ocelot attacked her. Her death is a sad outcome, but it's also not especially surprising. Ocelots are a main predator of sloths, and sloths have few defenses. Their legendary slowness generally helps them avoid detection. But once spotted by a creature redder in tooth and claw than they are, there's little they can do to protect themselves.

So why are we telling you this story? Partially because I kind of fell in love with Monster when I saw her in that basket in Costa Rica two years ago. But primarily, because science is often portrayed inaccurately: as a flawless "last word" on a subject, a cold-hearted endeavor, or both. But science is neither absolute nor heartless. It's a method of investigating the natural phenomena of the world used by people who are, in my experience as a science journalist, largely driven by sincere curiosity and passion. It's a work in progress. It doesn't always go as planned. There's a lot of trial and error. Monster's death is a prime example of this basic truth: All the research, preparation, and good intent undertaken by a committed scientist couldn't save this one sloth from a predator who eats her kind. That's just the way it works in the rainforest.

But while Monster may be gone, what Trull learned about sloths by training, studying, releasing, and—yes—loving that three-toed, algae-covered, moth-hosting, hibiscus-eating, infrequently pooping animal will likely inform sloth science for years to come. And in a bit of good news, the other sloths Trull has released are doing well in the wild.

RIP, Monster.

If you'd like to support this science, The Sloth Institute of Costa Rica has created the Monster Memorial Fund; donations will support the construction of a Wild Sloth Health (WiSH) lab, where "research efforts will focus on monitoring different health parameters to get an overall picture of the quality of life of populations of sloths." They'll name the lab after Monster. You can also keep up with the Sloth Institute’s work through Trull’s Tumblr and Twitter feeds.

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Animals
10 Notable Gestation Periods in the Animal Kingdom
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The gestation periods of the animal kingdom are varied and fascinating. Some clock in at just a few weeks, making any human green with envy, while others can last more than a year. Here are 10 notable gestation times for animals around the globe. The lesson? Be thankful that you’re not a pregnant elephant.

1. ELEPHANTS: 640-660 DAYS

Elephants are pregnant for a long time. Like really, really long. At an average of 95 weeks, the gestation period is more than double the length of a human pregnancy, so it shouldn't come as a shock that female elephants don't often have more than four offspring during their lifetimes. Who has the time?

2. HIPPOS: 8 MONTHS

A photo of a mother hippo and her baby in Uganda

Yes, it takes less time to make a hippopotamus than it takes to make a human.

3. GIRAFFE: 14-15 MONTHS

Baby giraffes can weigh more than 150 pounds and can be around 6 feet tall. Another fascinating tidbit: giraffes give birth standing up, so it's pretty normal for a baby to fall 6 feet to the ground.

4. KILLER WHALE: 17 MONTHS

There’s a reason for the long wait: after that 17 months, Baby Shamu emerges weighing anywhere from 265 to 353 pounds and measuring about 8.5 feet long. Yikes.

5. OPOSSUM: 12-13 DAYS

A baby opossum wrapped up in a blanket

Blink and you'll miss it: This is the shortest gestation period of any mammal in North America. But since the lifespan of an opossum is only two to four years, it makes sense.

6. GERBILS: 25 DAYS

Hey, they get off pretty easy.

7. GORILLAS: 8.5 MONTHS

It's not a huge surprise that their gestational periods are pretty similar to ours, right?

8. BLACK BEAR: 220 DAYS

A pair of black bear cubs

Also less than a human. Interestingly, cubs might only be 6 to 8 inches in length at birth and are completely hairless. 

9. PORCUPINE: 112 DAYS

This is the longest gestation period of any rodent. Thankfully for the mother, porcupine babies (a.k.a. porcupettes) are actually born with soft quills, and it's not until after birth that they harden up.

10. WALRUS: 15 MONTHS

Baby walruses? Kind of adorable. They certainly take their sweet time coming out, though.

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Animals
Goldfish Can Get Depressed, Too
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Don’t believe what Pixar is trying to sell you: Fish are not exactly brimming with personality. In aquariums, they tend to swim in circles, sucking up fragments of food and ducking around miniature treasure chests. To a layperson, fish don’t appear to possess concepts of happy, or sad, or anything in between—they just seem to exist.

This, researchers say, is not quite accurate. Speaking with The New York Times, Julian Pittman, a professor at the Department of Biological and Environmental Sciences at Troy University, says that fish not only suffer from depression, they can be easily diagnosed. Zebrafish dropped into a new tank who linger at the bottom are probably sad; those who enthusiastically explore the upper half are not.

In Pittman’s studies, fish depression can be induced by getting them “drunk” on ethanol, then cutting off the supply, resulting in withdrawal. These fish mope around the tank floor until they’re given antidepressants, at which point they begin happily swimming near the surface again.

It’s impossible to correlate fish depression with that of a human, but Pittman believes the symptoms in fish—losing interest in exploring and eating—makes them viable candidates for exploring neuroscience and perhaps drawing conclusions that will be beneficial in the land-dwelling population.

In the meantime, you can help ward off fish blues by keeping them busy—having obstacles to swim through and intriguing areas of a tank to explore. Just like humans, staying active and engaged can boost their mental health.

[h/t The New York Times]

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