Behind the Shot: Pygmy Sloth

My heart sank at our boatman’s words, “I can’t get you any closer than that!”

The backlit blob thirty-something feet above, mostly hidden by vegetation, was hardly the photograph I wanted of a Pygmy Sloth. Two plane rides and a 50-mile boat ride to see a dark lump atop a tree? It was hardly satisfying. This wasn’t even enough of a view to claim I’d seen one of Isla Escudo de Varaguas’ endemic miniature three-toed sloths, and getting a picture seemed hopeless. Nonetheless, I didn’t want to miss the opportunity if this was the best view I’d get. I lifted my lens.

Sebastián laughed, “No, not that one! Turn around.” 

Photographing a pygmy sloth off the bow of my boat in Isla Escudo de Varaguas, Panama.

Tucked in the crotch of a mangrove tree just off the bow of our boat, slumbered a Pygmy Sloth. Head nestled in the crook of its arm, it looked like no more than a bundle of fur. I watched, hoping this sleeping beauty would arouse to inspect the engine sounds mere feet from its “bed”. No luck. The slight rise and fall of coarse fur was the only sign that this was a living animal. I knew I was hoping beyond hope for a portrait given that sloths are famous for sleeping more than half the day, and remaining motionless is one of their best defenses. Still, my position was perfect if this sloth would just glance up for a moment…

“Get your camera ready,” Sebastián whispered. Then he whistled. 

As the sound pierced the air, the sloth raised its head. It wasn’t a quick movement, but certainly alert and intentional, probably even speedy by sloth standards. Gentle eyes laid upon me a moment, then the sloth turned its head in one direction and the other, fully scanning the horizon before returning to its nap position.

Again, Sebastián whistled. Again, the sloth raised its head and searched the area. I basked in its brief gaze, capturing the moment on film before it again returned its head to the pillow of its arm. Was it my imagination, or had the sloth been smiling?

I turned to Sebastián, “Why does that whistle get their attention?”

Sebastián grinned, “It’s their mating call.”

I guess it wasn’t my imagination, that was a real smile!

A truly smiling pygmy sloth.

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