Image: Stefan Laube/Wikimedia Commons.
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The trees have it…

Tons of alternative tree uses! Trees, helping to make the world an even more amazing place.

Image: Stefan Laube/Wikimedia Commons.
Image: Stefan Laube/Wikimedia Commons.

Trees, those magnificent, organic, large – sometimes huge – woody constructions continue to fascinate and inspire all who stop, stand and stare up (and up, and up…) at them. So here’s a selection of tree-based items to maintain – or maybe even initiate? – the phenomenon of arborifascination. But first a question: why did the three-toed sloth come down from the trees?

Answer: to defecate! Sloths are considered to be amongst the most, well, er, slothful of animals that, anecdotally, spend most of their time in trees, doing ‘not a lot’, apart from eating tree leaves [they are arboreal herbivores, after all; Tree Use No. (TUN) 1]. However, not only is this descent to the ground energy-consuming, it also exposes the sloth to potential predators; so why would they risk it? Work by Jonathan Pauli et al. may have the answer to this otherwise inexplicable behaviour. Three-toed sloths* harbour moths, inorganic nitrogen (N) and algae (e.g. green algae Trichophilus spp.) within their fur. The lipid-rich algae are eaten by the sloths and presumably supplement their diet of leaves. By leaving the tree for defecation, the fur-residing moths are transported to their oviposition (egg-laying) sites in sloth dung, which subsequently facilitates further moth colonisation of sloth fur. Since those moths are ‘portals for nutrients’, levels of inorganic N (potentially from moth excreta) in sloth fur increase, which in turn fuels algal growth. As the researchers conclude, ‘these linked mutualisms between moths, sloths and algae appear to aid the sloth in overcoming a highly constrained lifestyle’. Wow! I will never look at a three-toed sloth in quite the same way again.

Also challenging perceived wisdom is work by Marc Ancrenaz et al. Traditionally, orangutans (the world’s largest arboreal mammal) are assumed to be obligate arborealists, swinging seemingly effortlessly from tree to tree (TUN 2) as they navigate their lofty aerial neighbourhood. However, observations of terrestrial activity by these primates in the wild begs the question, why? Hitherto this activity was considered to be a response to habitat disturbance, but Ancrenaz et al. found no difference in instances of this behaviour in disturbed versus non-disturbed areas. They therefore propose that terrestrial locomotion is part of the Bornean orangutan’s natural behavioural repertoire and may increase their ability to cope with at least smaller-scale forest fragmentation, and to cross moderately open spaces in mosaic landscapes. So, it seems that even orangutans can have a bit too much of the ‘high life’ at times.

Finally, a terrestrial–aquatic organism that’s going up in the world. Reviewing evidence of tree-climbing activity in extant crocodilians (crocodiles and alligators), Vladimir Dinets et al. suggest it is much more widespread than previously considered and ‘might have multiple functions’, e.g. as an alternative site for thermoregulation (TUN 4), or increased detectability of prey (TUN 5). So, there you have it, ‘tons’ of alternative tree uses! Trees, helping to make the world an even more amazing place.


* Two-toed sloths don’t go in for this more energetic activity – and have lower densities of moths, lower N levels and reduced algal biomass in their fur…

Nigel Chaffey

I am a Botanist and former Senior Lecturer in Botany at Bath Spa University (Bath, near Bristol, UK). As News Editor for the Annals of Botany I contributed the monthly Plant Cuttings column to that august international phytological organ for almost 10 years. I am now a freelance plant science communicator and Visiting Research Fellow at Bath Spa University. I also continue to share my Cuttingsesque items - and appraisals of books with a plant focus - with a plant-curious audience at Botany One. In that guise my main goal is to inform (hopefully, in an educational, and entertaining way) others about plants and plant-people interactions, and thereby improve humankind's botanical literacy. I'm happy to be contacted to discuss potential writing - or talking - projects and opportunities.
[ORCID: 0000-0002-4231-9082]

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