High moon brightness and low ambient temperatures affect sloth predation by harpy eagles

Everton B. P. De Miranda, Caio F. Kenup, Edwin Campbell-Thompson, Felix H. Vargas, Angel Muela, Richard Watson, Carlos A. Peres, Colleen T. Downs

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

6 Citations (Scopus)
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Background: Climate plays a key role in the life histories of tropical vertebrates. However, tropical forests are only weakly seasonal compared with temperate and boreal regions. For species with limited ability to control core body temperature, even mild climatic variation can determine major behavioural outcomes, such as foraging and predator avoidance. In tropical forests, sloths are the arboreal vertebrate attaining the greatest biomass density, but their capacity to regulate body temperature is limited, relying on behavioural adaptations to thermoregulate. Sloths are largely or strictly nocturnal, and depend on crypsis to avoid predation. The harpy eagle (Harpia harpyja) is a sloth-specialist and exerts strong top-down control over its prey species. Yet the role of environmental variables on the regulation of predator-prey interactions between sloths and harpy eagles are unknown. The harpy eagle is considered Near Threatened. This motivated a comprehensive effort to reintroduce this species into parts of Mesoamerica. This effort incidentally enabled us to understand the prey profile of harpy eagles over multiple seasons. Methods: Our study was conducted between 2003 and 2009 at Soberanía National Park, Panamá. Telemetered harpy eagles were seen hunting and feeding on individual prey species. For each predation event, field assistants systematically recorded the species killed. We analysed the effects of climatic conditions and vegetation phenology on the prey species profile of harpy eagles using generalised linear mixed models. Results: Here we show that sloth predation by harpy eagles was negatively affected by nocturnal ambient light (i.e. bright moonshine) and positively affected by seasonally cool temperatures. We suggest that the first ensured low detectability conditions for sloths foraging at night and the second posed a thermally unsuitable climate that forced sloths to forage under riskier daylight. We showed that even moderate seasonal variation in temperature can influence the relationship between a keystone tropical forest predator and a dominant prey item. Therefore, predator-prey ecology in the tropics can be modulated by subtle changes in environmental conditions. The seasonal effects shown here suggest important demographic consequences for sloths, which are under top-down regulation from harpy eagle predation, perhaps limiting their geographic distribution at higher latitudes.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere9756
Publication statusPublished - 27 Aug 2020


  • Apex predator
  • Bradypus
  • Canopy
  • Choloepus
  • Deciduousness
  • Foraging
  • Harpia harpyja
  • Moonlight
  • Seasonality
  • Tropical forest

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