A sloth’s diet: What do sloths eat?

Sloths were in to the slow food movement well before any humans. Such trendsetters!

My name is Eater, Leaf Eater

If you’re looking for the answer to the question what do sloths eat? then you really just need to look to their name. Sloths belong to the suborder Folivora – which literally means leaf-eater. Considering they spend their days hanging among the leaves, I guess they have a pretty convenient diet.¬† Leaves, flowers and stalks are a sloth’s food of choice. And perhaps the occasional unfortunate ant who failed to jump off the greenery in time.

No more thanks, my compartments are full

Sloths have a very low metabolic rate along with a low body temperature. This means that they really don’t need to eat very much at all. In fact, about a handful of leaves a day will keep them satisfied.

Sloth’s stomachs are divided into compartments, similar to cows and sheep. This allows them to fully digest¬† all the tasty cellulose they consume. Still, it takes them about a month to digest their food.

All those leaves sitting around digesting for so long adds up. About two thirds of a sloth’s body weight is the contents of its stomach.

50 shades of trees

A lot of information on the internet will lead you to believe that sloths eat the leaves of the Cecropia tree only. But actually they can enjoy the flavours of over fifty types of tree from the tropical rainforests of America.

The Sloth Conservation Foundation actually got quite cross about the way a scientific study was reported recently. Articles implied that sloths will be just fine as long as we keep planting Cecropia trees. According to the Foundation, that’s innacurate and dangerous.

Because sloths only eat such a small amount, and can eat from quite a wide range of trees, planting more cecropias is not going to make up for the fact that the sloth’s habitat is being destroyed at an alarming rate. Sloths are at more risk of power line electrocutions, dog attacks and being hit by cars than they are of going hungry. Therefore – please stop cutting down the rainforests thanks very much.

Hoffman's Two Toed Sloth in a Cecropia Tree
Photo credit

Eats shoots and… rats?

I think I’m going to need to see some footage of this to believe it (although actually watching this would be pretty unpleasant)- but apparently two toed sloths will eat bird eggs, rats and mice in addition to leaves. How in the heavens do sloths catch rats and mice? Sloths – the slowest mammals in the world. Sloths – who move so slowly you can’t actually tell they’re moving. I’m confused. Stay tuned on this one, I need to find out more.

Moths: a sloth’s personal chef

Did you know that sloths and moths love hanging out together? It’s true.

Scientists were curious as to why sloths expend so much energy, and risk their lives, by travelling down to the ground to poop. Why don’t they just let them drop from above? They put themselves at risk of being eaten by predators when they’re on the ground. Why do it?

Well one theory is that they risk their lives for their friend the moth. Sloth dung is a nursery for certain types of moth. When the moths hatch, they fly straight back up into the trees to find some sloth fur to live in. Having a bunch of moths in your fur leads you to grow algae – which helps to camouflage you with its greenness, and also provides a very nutritious and no doubt delicious snack.

This theory is questioned by some – as sloths in captivity, who do not need moths or algae to survive, still poop on the ground. Perhaps it’s got more to do with a sloth’s dating life. Marking the tree might let other sloths know that a fertile female is hanging around waiting for you upstairs.

And the question we all must answer on a daily basis – do more or eat less?

Spoiler alert – sloths chose the latter.

References

The sloth and the moth: A mutually beneficial relationship

This is the horror sloths go through every time they have to poop

Sloths need more than just cecropia for survival