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Sloths, moths, algae may live in three-way benefit pact

Insects and green slime may justify slow mammal’s risky descent from trees

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7:05pm, January 21, 2014

MAMMAL’S LITTLE HELPERS  To make a living as one of the rare mammals that eats only tree leaves, a brown-throated three-toed sloth may be getting some help from mating moths and sloth-specialist algae.

A tree-dwelling sloth’s climb down to ground level for its weekly bathroom break may not be pointless daintiness.

The trip is risky and (for a sloth) energetically expensive. Yet the effort could be the sloth’s contribution to a mutually beneficial, three-way partnership.  The sloth’s trips seem to encourage moths that mate in the mammal’s fur and algae that thrive on moth detritus, suggests Jonathan Pauli of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

The payoff for the sloth, after a Rube Goldberg-like string of actions by the other partners, could be rich blooms of nutritious algae to eat off its own fur, Pauli and his colleagues propose January 22 in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

“Sloths are bizarre,” Pauli says with evident enthusiasm. Why three-toed sloths go to the trouble to clamber down to the forest floor to scrape out a latrine depression about

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