The scientific method: sloth sleep study

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Maya Kaup’s research on sloths focuses on two species: Hoffmann’s two-toed sloth và the brown-throated three-toed sloth. All sloths actually have three toes. Submitted photo by Maya Kaup


OXFORD, Miss. – The sluggish sloth is hittinga cultural apex, with recent star rolesin an insurance commercial, the animated film “Zootopia” & even as aspecial “referee” during this year’s Puppy Bowl XIV.

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Maya Kaup, aUniversity of Mississippigraduate student in biology, welcomes the rise of the sloth, slow-moving mammals noted for spending their unhurried lives hanging from trees in the rainforests of Central & South America. The California native studies these creatures in thelaboratoryofErik Hom, UM assistant professor of biology.

Kaup is studyingwhy sloths và their symbionts – fungi, algae & insects that live in sloth fur – have apparently formed mutually beneficial relationships.

“I’ve always loved sloths,” she said. “They’re one of my favorite animals và they have been for many years, và it’s all because I like the strange & the weird and the intriguing in nature.”

Kaup said there are many unanswered questions surrounding sloths and especially their algae, which have been thought to provide camouflage against predators, although there is little data to support this idea. While these algae have been found in sloth stomach contents và may offer sloths a nutritional boost, it is not clear how sloths are ingesting the algae since they don’t lick themselves like cats.

Besides studies in the field, Kaupalso hopes to grow sloth algae in the lab setting lớn see if they might be of any medicinal benefit to humans. Species of fungi in sloth’s fur are known to lớn produce potent anti-parasitic, anti-cancer và anti-bacterial compounds that may be relevant for drug development.

“Sloths are a challenging species,” Kaup said. “A lot of this is experimental, as no one has tried lớn grow the algae in a lab before.”

Hom said his lab’s research is generally focused on understanding the “rules” for how microbes interact persistently to form stable communities that perform specified functions. The research includes projects from field sampling và studying fungi, & algae and cyanobacteria that have been isolated from around the world to lớn studying the microbial communities in fermented beverages such as kefir.

“My friends generally know me to be someone who is mở cửa and willing to pursue wacky ideas và projects if I feel there’s compelling science to beworked out,” Hom said. “I also believe in investing in people over projects.


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Maya Kaup is a University of Mississippi biological science graduate student whose research is focused on sloths và their mutualism with symbionts such as algae. Submitted photo


“Both of these convictions came into play when Maya joined our lab khổng lồ pursue her research on sloths. I believe in what Maya can discover & believe there are some really cool discoveries to lớn be made about the algae & microbes associated with sloths, as well as the sloths themselves.

“I’m a firm believer of focusing on ‘substance over optics’ – focusing on deeply interesting questions và doing our best to bởi excellent science. If Maya’s research is done well, it will get the attention of the scientific community, & the University of Mississippi will be acknowledged de facto.

“Maya happens to work on a very charismatic and timely creature that captures the hearts và imagination of many people, so ‘the sloth’ intrinsically brings attention khổng lồ our work.”

Kaup’s research into sloths recently included three weeks during winterbreak atThe Sloth Institutein Costa Rica. The institute, tucked along the Pacific Coast of the Central American country, has the mission of enhancing the welfare & conservation of sloths through research và education.

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The institute also collaborates to rescue, rehab và release Costa Rican sloths, which include the Hoffmann’s two-toed sloth & the brown-throated three-toed sloth.

Institute co-founder and director Sam Trull said she was excited for two reasons when Kaup inquired about collaborating on a study to lớn learn more about the algae that live in sloth fur.

“First, she aimed to lớn answer questions that we have had for a long time, so it was very exciting to connect with someone who had the drive, expertise và willingness to lớn help us get these answers,” Trull said. “Second, I was very impressed by her desire khổng lồ put the welfare of the sloths as vị trí cao nhất priority. …Maya made it clear early on that she cared about sloths and wanted khổng lồ work with them to lớn help them.”

Kaup plans to return to lớn the institute this summer for more research.

“With sloths, you need a lot of time doing field work because a lot of my time was spent sitting, waiting and watching,” she said. “Since they are so slow, it is actually very hard khổng lồ catch them. You’d think it would be easy because they are slow, but they are way up in the vị trí cao nhất of trees, in the canopies, on tiny, tiny branches.”

The Arcata, California, native grew up along the Pacific Coast about five hours north of San Francisco, playing and exploring in the outdoors, & discovering “a ton of interesting organisms that kids can play with.”


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Sloths live in the tops of trees, making Maya Kaup’s experience as a trained tree climber handy in her research. Submitted photo by Sam Trull


Both her parents have a background in teaching, and her sister is a teacher as well. Kaup also volunteered at places such as the Sequoia Park Zoo in nearby Eureka, California, và the Humboldt Wildlife Care Center outside Arcata.

“I always knew growing up that I wanted to work with animals,” Kaup said.“In high school, I started thinking about what I wanted to do past college, & I knew I wanted khổng lồ either work in wildlife rehabilitation or in zoos or in research.”

Kaup graduated from Willamette University in Salem, Oregon, in 2017 with a bachelor’s degree in biology. She also studied in Costa Rica at Universidad Nacional de Costa Rica during the spring of 2016.

Before graduation, she searched for a university where she could focus her research on sloths, animals that have seemingly defied evolution, because in nature, if speed equals survival, sloths have simply faced that fact & shaken their furry heads –lazily.

“They’ve evolved lớn be incredibly slow,” Kaup said. “They have the slowest metabolism of all mammals, và they have extremely unusual behavior and they obviously have these extremely unusual symbionts in their fur – the algae, the fungi, the insects.

“Some of those things interact with their behavior. All those intriguing aspects of sloths drew me to lớn them.”

Kaup moved to lớn Mississippi, visiting the state & the South for the first time in her life on a recruitment visit lớn Hom’s lab in the spring of 2017. While the natural environment of Mississippi is not one of tide pools and redwood forests – và certainly no sloths – she’s found a different nature lớn embrace, và a university setting that is welcoming and supportive.

“Ultimately, my dream career would involve aspects of education where you educate kids và adults as well about the natural world & about wildlife & how khổng lồ protect them, & would incorporate some aspect of research because I still have that drive khổng lồ answer the questions that I have,” Kaup said.

“There are so many mysteries in nature, & I want khổng lồ be able lớn answer all the questions I have. The only way to bởi vì that is through research.”

Individuals & organizations can make gifts lớn The Hom Lab by sending a check with the lab’s name in the memo line to lớn the University of Mississippi Foundation, 406 University Ave., Oxford, MS 38655; or online athttps://www.umfoundation.com/makeagift/. For more information, tương tác Hom aterik