A syndrome of mutualism reinforces the lifestyle of a sloth

Jonathan N. Pauli, Jorge E. Mendoza, Shawn A. Steffan, Cayelan C. Carey, Paul J. Weimer, M. Zachariah Peery

Abstract

Arboreal herbivory is rare among mammals. The few species with this lifestyle possess unique adaptions to overcome size-related constraints on nutritional energetics. Sloths are folivores that spend most of their time resting or eating in the forest canopy. A three-toed sloth will, however, descend its tree weekly to defecate, which is risky, energetically costly and, until now, inexplicable. We hypothesized that this behaviour sustains an ecosystem in the fur of sloths, which confers cryptic nutritional benefits to sloths. We found that the more specialized three-toed sloths harboured more phoretic moths, greater concentrations of inorganic nitrogen and higher algal biomass than the generalist two-toed sloths. Moth density was positively related to inorganic nitrogen concentration and algal biomass in the fur. We discovered that sloths consumed algae from their fur, which was highly digestible and lipid-rich. By descending a tree to defecate, sloths transport moths to their oviposition sites in sloth dung, which facilitates moth colonization of sloth fur. Moths are portals for nutrients, increasing nitrogen levels in sloth fur, which fuels algal growth. Sloths consume these algae-gardens, presumably to augment their limited diet. These linked mutualisms between moths, sloths and algae appear to aid the sloth in overcoming a highly constrained lifestyle.

  • Received November 16, 2013.
  • Accepted December 20, 2013.
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