Sometimes the most unlikely benefits result from the relationships between animals and their environment. Nemo famously demonstrated the mutual relationship between clown fish and anemones and a recent blog on animal co-dependence had the EDGE team wondering which EDGE mammals are involved in mutualistic relationships in which both the animal and the environment they interact with receive a benefit.
Our review begins with Gilbert’s potoroo (Potorous gilberti), a critically endangered mammal found in Australia of which there are thought to be less than 100 individuals. This small marsupial has an unusual diet for a mammal as it consists mainly of fungi with up to 44 species of fungi being indentified in faecal samples! This is good news though because the potoroo is able to spread fungi spores to new places in which they can grow. In addition to spore dispersal, the potoroo is also helping many trees and shrubs that have a symbiotic, mycorrhizal relationship with fungi, where the fungi benefits plants by increasing their ability to capture water and nutrients. The endangered long-footed potoroo (Potorous longipes) and the woylie (Bettongia penicillata), also both found in Australia perform a similar role to Gilbert’s potoroo and all three play an important part in maintaining the health of the Australian environment.
A slightly more unusual mutual relationship occurs between the Pygmy three-toed sloth (Bradypus pygmaeus) and the Trichophilus algae which grow in the hair of this mammal. Although this relationship is not yet completely understood it is thought that the slow-moving sloth benefits from the camouflage the algae provides. In return, the algae, which is unique and not found elsewhere, is allowed to grow with little disturbance. The pygmy three-toed sloth has been isolated for 9,000 years on a small island off the coast of Panama so it is no surprise that the algae it hosts is unique!
Lastly, we come to the endangered Asian elephant (Elephas maximus). Despite the human conflict resulting from their destructive behaviour they are considered a ‘keystone’ species because of the role they play in opening forest clearings and dispersing the seeds of shrubs and trees. In addition the tracks they clear as they move through the forest act as firebreaks and the holes they dig in dry riverbeds provide water to other species. Despite the conflict, the Asian elephant’s activities are vital to the health of the ecosystem in which they live.
All the species mentioned here provide examples of why many species are so important to the health of the ecosystems in which they live and why the remaining population and their habitat should be protected to ensure they are not lost.
To read the original inspiration for this blog which reveals some more animals living in mutual, co-dependant relationships click here.
You can find out more about the successful conservation of Gilbert’s Potoroo by visiting the Gilbert’s Potoroo Action Group.