Does moth life on sloth please them both?

To protect insect diversity, we first need to understand more about it. My project is going to contribute to a deeper understanding of a fascinating group of Lepidoptera by studying the unexplored species of sloth moths. These intriguing species have adapted to spending their lives in the fur of two- and three-toed sloths. Sloths are arboreal and very slow-moving mammals, and in addition to moths, they also have algae living in their fur. The sloths come down from their tree to defecate on the ground about once a week and this is likely for the benefit of the moths, who lay eggs into the sloth excrement, where their larvae develop (Pauli et al., 2014). This descent from a tree is life threatening for sloths because it exposes them to their predators. It  has been hypothesized that a symbiosis between sloths and moths has evolved, where sloths possibly gain nutrients benefiting algal growth in their fur. These fur algae help sloths camouflage in the greenness of the canopy. When the moth larvae develop and the adult moth emerges from the feces, it flies off in search of a new habitat, i.e. sloth. Drivers of adaptations to this unique habitat remain unexplored and that is what I aim to clarify in the course of my PhD studies.

The first step in understanding these relationships is inferring the evolutionary history of sloth moths, which will enable me to understand their relationship to their close relatives and test for the coevolution with sloths. Further, I will look more closely at the interactions between the moth and the sloth, through field work which will be carried out in Colombia. Also, to understand the poorly investigated intra-species communication of sloth moths I will identify chemicals involved in this process and investigate the pheromone production of this fascinating species.

Doctoral researcher: Mirela Mirić

Supervision: Dr Marcus Stensmyr (LU), Dr Christer Löfstedt (LU), Dr Bill S Hansson (MPI-CE), Dr Jadranka Rota (LU), and Dr Niklas Wahlberg (LU)

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