|Posted on December 23, 2017 at 2:00 PM|
There is much more going on here than can be seen watching a lazy perezoso long-settled in the crook of a cecropia from a bipedal’s vantage point far below. In fact, a panoply of interactions are happening that we’d need a lot of patience, perhaps an extending ladder and certainly a microscope to bear witness to, that of the oh, so fascinatingly complex life history of the three-toed sloth..
A low-energy diet of slow-to-metabolize leaves, which also happen to contain a mild narcotic, are both to blame for the eternal dawdling of this beloved and unique icon of the tropics. Nevertheless, its sluggish pace provides plenty opportunity for an entire ecosystem to set up shop all throughout the pelt of this slothfully sedate soul.
Algae finds an easy substrate to grow within the grooved strands of fur which from this furry perch provides nutrients to an array of both microorganisms and invertebrates, including the various species of “sloth moths” which call this (and only this) slow-moving terrain of a mammal home. The symbiotic relationship that provides a substrate upon which the algae can grow reciprocally acts as effective camouflage for this creature that can’t make a hasty escape when predators are near.
Female sloth moths take advantage of the perezoso’s weekly defecatory descent (aka pit stop) to lay her moth eggs in the feces the sloth deposits at the bottom of the tree. When the hatching moths emerge, they fly upwards to spend their lives nestled in the perezoso’s fur, feeding on the algae and nutrients from the sloths’s skin secretions as well as adding their own defecations to the system all while awaiting their next reproduction cycle on the mating grounds that is this very mammal’s own fur.
But that’s not all folks! So when the perezoso makes its laborious and energy-intensive descent, it is making itself perilously vulnerable to predation. So why go through all that trouble to carefully deposit one’s droppings and (perhaps almost reverently) bury it underground at the foot of the tree? Scientists have long debated this and the possible hidden benefits of this arduous journey just to go poo. What this all revolves back around to is the micro-ecosystem within the fur of this fascinatingly complex creature and the algae that grows upon it. The algae itself is rich in nutrients and the sloth in fact feeds upon its own body’s edible garden, which thus provides the animal with nutrients otherwise lacking in a diet solely of leaves.
Whew, I can hardly keep up! But can you even imagine how this rich interaction of species in such a micro environment evolved? It’s an complex interconnection of relationships that has in fact persisted for millions of years. And just think how much research (and patience!) it must have taken to figure all this out? And yet even within this micro-ecosystem, there’s still even more to learn in regard to energy input & output and how these vulnerable appearing animals have persisted throughout time. The secrets of the rainforest are infinite and every step we take to learn more about it not only benefits the species we’re learning about but perhaps has the possibility of benefitting the planet and we bipeds who inhabit it as well.