The incredible diversity of food sources and unique niches of the canopy trees support a wide variety of animal species. Animals often congregate around a flowering tree, which makes trees in this stage some of the best sites for viewing wildlife. In places like these, where food is abundant, animals set up territories, but since canopy leaf cover affects visual territorial displays, most animals rely on sound signals. Thus some of the loudest animals of the world are canopy dwellers. Many primates emit howls and screams, while birds use song to let other animals know that they are intruding on their space.
Common paths, often leading to fruiting trees, where many animals may pass in the course of the day are well-worn and often free of epiphytes; these form highways in the trees. Similarly, areas in the canopy free of vegetation form flight corridors used by numerous species, especially the birds of prey which often attack their prey from below. These flight paths are embedded in the memory of bats and birds.
Despite the huge abundance of canopy leaves, few mammals are properly equipped to eat them. Cellulose, the material of which cell walls are made, is difficult to digest, so leaf-eating animals must have large stomachs to hold their meal while it is being broken down. A large stomach is often accompanied by a large body which can be detrimental to canopy dwellers who depend on branches to support their weight. Similarly, very few birds specialize in leaf-eating because the extensive digestive system adds weight that hinders flight. Interestingly, more Old World mammal species, especially primates, rely heavily on leaves for the bulk of their diet, but few New World primates have the physiological adaptations to digest fibrous cellulose. Forest canopy mammals outfitted to feed on leaves include sloths, howler monkeys, orangutans, and chimpanzees.
The sloth's fur is an entire ecosystem of its own: one study found more than 950 beetles on a single sloth, living off the algae growing in its fur. The fur is also home to a certain species of moth which is dependent on the sloth's descent for its life cycle. When the sloth reaches the ground, the moth quickly lays its eggs in the sloth's dung and returns to the sloth's fur. After the eggs hatch and the caterpillars become moths, the moths, in some way or another, claim another sloth.
The routine descent of the sloth raises an interesting question—if sloths are so clumsy and slow on the ground why do they put themselves at risk to terrestrial predators when they could easily defecate from the trees? The answer lies in the intricacy of the rainforest ecosystem. By defecating at the base of their host cecropia tree, the sloth provides the tree with precious fertilizer, a rare but vital commodity in most rainforests.
Howler monkeys are another New World canopy animal that relies heavily on leaves. Howler monkeys have earned the distinction of the loudest animal, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, with their raucous howls that can be heard clearly at distances over 10 miles away. This record is quite believable when a troop of noisy howler monkeys approaches. The male howler monkey, closely related to the spider monkey, is equipped with a special voice box which enables it to vocally defend its small territory without physical confrontation. Howler monkeys live in troops of 5-20 animals (average), in which females and juveniles make up the greatest percentage. These stocky, black primates, weighing up to 20 pounds (9 kg), are also known to eat leaves, although this species usually turns to canopy leaves only when fruits are in short supply.BR>
Orangutans are highly threatened by the illegal trade in endangered species and widespread deforestation in Indonesia and Malaysia. WWF estimates that of the remaining 30,000-40,000 orangutans in the wild, more than 1,000 are poached every year as pets or sources of bushmeat.
Chimpanzees, genetically, the closest living relation to man, are also leaf eaters, although they also feed on shoots, seeds, bark, fruits, and (less frequently) insects, fish, reptiles, and small mammals. Chimpanzees are highly threatened in their native West and Central Africa by destruction of habitat and hunting as a source of bush meat. Chimpanzees, up to 5.5 feet (1.7 m) when erect, are strong animals that dwell both arboreally and terrestrially.
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Continued: Animal locomotion in the canopy
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