Single Species Ecosystems

Before I get to Ecology, I want to say that Panama and the STRI has been fantastic and that I am grateful to be given the opportunity to work here. The Institute has surround us with brilliant scientist, visionaries, and biologists. Hopefully, some of their brilliance will diffuse to us.

So far we’ve covered very different yet interesting topics: Tropical Forest, Bird, Primate, and Insect Ecology.  All have given me insight about how the tropics has come to the outrage species diversity that we see before us. Whether it be Inga toxin evolution, birds’ spatial niche division, primates movement group decision or coloration selection pressures in the wings of a butterfly. All this work brings to mind Michael Rosenzweig book Species Diversity through Time and Space. In the book, he goes to great lengths to explain some of the patterns that could be driving diversity patterns. With the major takeaway being that species diversity is driven by coevolution to a novel niche which results in increase fitness, yet decreased niche breath. This phenomena seems to be highly abundant among the tropics and would be interesting to see where the literature stands.

This and other ecological theories have been buzzing through my head while trying to determine a microbial focused project in Panama. One small source of inspiration has come from Bradypus variegatusalso known as the Brown-throated three-toed sloth. Besides being incredible charismatic, these creatures are also engaged in a mutualistic relationship with a distinct algal species (Trichophilus), and a moth species (Cryptoses). This relationship is interesting to me as it demonstrates how a single species like the sloth becomes a mirohabitat and adds to the total diversity of the forest.  Additionally, the three way interaction is a “cool” ecological story.


(Image from Pauli et al. 2014.)

Sloths travel to the forest floor to defecate. The moths living in the fur take advantage of this newly proved nutrient pool and lay their eggs in the sloth feces. Once the moths emerge they seek out the sloths fur and bring nutrients to the hair of the sloth. These nutrients are then mineralized by the microbial flora of the sloth and provide the phosphorus and nitrogen for the algal community. The Algae provide the sloth with camouflage in addition to a lipid rich food source which is easily digestible. Small micro ecosystem processes like this amaze me, and make me wonder where else they could exist.

Pauli, Jonathan N., et al. “A syndrome of mutualism reinforces the lifestyle of a sloth.” Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences281.1778 (2014): 20133006.


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