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article imageSloths, moths and green 'algae gardens'

By Karen Graham     Jan 22, 2014 in Science
We may refer to a lazy person as being slothful, but we are doing a disservice to this unique, arboreal mammal. Sloths are actually easy-going animals, content to spend their days in the tree-tops, munching tender leaves and nibbling algae off their fur.
Sloths are probably the world's first recyclers, and they accomplish this feat in a most unusual way. Through a process called symbiosis, they are able to reuse their own body-waste to create edible food. The relationship consists of the sloth, a moth, and the sloth's fecal waste.
The benefits to the sloths, the trees they live in, and the moths were documented in a paper published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, recently. Jonathan Pauli with the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Department of Forest and Wildlife Ecology was the lead author, and said he became interested in the sloth's unique way of recycling after watching a David Attenborough video on YouTube called "Mouldy Sloth."
The video showed some footage of a three-toed sloth covered in a gooey mess of green glop with moths covering its fur. Attenborough is saying, "Imagine an infestation in a shag carpet on top of a compost heap."
Native to Central and South America, sloths are either two-toed or three-toed, though they aren't actually closely related. Researchers think it's more a case of parallel evolution. The three-toed sloth is close to becoming extinct, primarily because of human encroachment into their habitat.
Sloths spend almost all their time in the canopy, descending down to the ground once a week to defecate and urinate. They are very hygienic, in that they take the time to cover their waste with leaves and other forest debris before ascending back to the tree tops. Because sloths only breed once a year, it is suspected that this behavior helps in attracting a mate, too, because sloths have a better sense of smell than sight.
Researchers discovered the dung harbors the dung-eating moth larvae, that will eat its way out of the waste. Pauli points out that since sloths don't use toilet paper, some of the dung will attach itself to the their "bums." When the moth larvae emerge from the poop, on the sloth and on the forest floor, the moths then fly into the sloth's fur.
Continuing the cycle, the moths will poop in the fur, then die themselves and decay. The whole mixture is rather gross. But nature takes it a step farther, by adding other organic material to the mixture, resulting in what the researchers are calling green "algae gardens."
"Sloths eat the nutritional algae, which contains nitrogen and phosphorous. It's like pepper on top of sloth waste. The green coloration also provides sloths with camouflage." Pauli said.
More about Sloths, Green algae, Moths, symbiotic, arboreal
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