Some accounts refer to Sloths as omnivores, and others as purely herbivores, but there are several different types and diet does differ across the species. For example, many sloths are folivores, living only on a small selection of leaves, but they don’t all eat the same type. So what do sloths eat exactly?
Well, across the different species they are known to eat from a range of around 90 plants, but for each habitat this number is far lower. With most subspecies living on as few as 7 to 12 favourite types of tree and liana.
Some may potentially eat insects, small lizards and carrion, but it is for the most part, widely accepted that all species are herbivore. In most research, the vast majority of their diet consists of buds, tender shoots and leaves (including leaves from the cecropia tree). It used to be thought that they ate mostly cecropia leaves because they were often spotted in cecropia trees.
It turns out that they also live in many other trees, but are not spotted there as easily as in cecropia trees.
Sloths spend the vast majority of their time in the trees, only coming to ground occasionally to defecate or urinate, about once every week.
What Different Sloths Eat
There are two extant species of Sloth alive today (two toed and three toed), and across these two species there are 6 subspecies. All of these Sloths are native to South and Central America, and they are all tree dwellers. They don’t come down to ground very often, spending the vast majority of their time in the tree canopies. So what do Sloths eat if they hardly ever come to ground?
Three toed sloth are known to live on a diet including:
- Cacao pods and leaves
- Fig trees
Whereas two toed sloth are known to eat a diet that includes:
- Bobacaceae flowers
- Barrigon (leaves and flowers)
In each case, their location and the availability of different trees determine the diet of the native sloth population. All species of sloth eat cecropia leaves as part of their diet.
Here are the diet information for each of the subspecies of sloth.
Pygmy Sloth (Bradypus pygmaeus) Diet
There is still much to learn about the Pygmy three-toed sloth, and as they are critically endangered, some of these things we may never know. Little is known, for example, about their mating habits and patterns around reproduction. But we do know where they live, and what makes up the bulk of their diet.
The Pygmy Sloth can only be found in a small area of the Isla Escudos de Veraguas off the coast of Panama. It lives in an area of Red Mangrove and their entire range is less than 5 square kilometers. Their herbivorous diet consists mostly of the leaves of the Red Mangroves, but we know that these have very little nutritional value.
The habitat and diet may go some way to explaining the much smaller size that Pygmy Sloths have in comparison to other subspecies. As they only eat plants, the Pygmy Sloth does not hunt.
Maned Sloth (Bradypus torquatus) Diet
The Maned sloth can only be found in the Southern Brazilian Rainforest along the Atlantic coast. These three toed sloths are a very special type of herbivore called a folivore. A folivore specialises in eating leaves, and tend to have a slower metabolism and longer digestive tract. This is because it is harder to release the required nutrients from the leaves which can also contain toxic materials.
We know that the Maned Sloth eats mostly Cecropia leaves, but they can eat the leaves of other trees and liana vines too. From data collected by the Sloth Conservation Foundation, we know that Maned Sloths eat a diet made up of:
- Leaves (99%) of which:
- Tree leaves make up 83%
- Liana leaves make up 16%
Of the leaves consumed, young leaves make up 68% of the diet, and mature leaves make up 7%. The data was collected over 14 months and included samples from 3 individual sloth across the habitat range. The maned sloth have a very limited and specific range of trees and Liana from which they eat, depending on the availability in their local habitat.
Pale-throated Sloth (Bradypus tridactylus) Diet
The Pale-Throated Sloth is found throughout the forests of northern South America. Particularly in Brazil, French Guiana, Guyana, Suriname and Venezuela.
Pale-Throated sloths eat only buds from trees, leaves and debris such as twigs. The majority of their diet is made up of buds and leaves from the following trees:
They also live symbiotically with algae, which is hosted on the surface of their outer coat (guard hair). Pale-Throated sloths look very similar to Brown-Throated sloths, but can be distinguished by a a pale patch on their throat.
Brown-throated Sloth (Bradypus variegatus) Diet
The Brown-Throated Sloth can be found throughout South and Central America. It is the most common of the three-toed sloth species, and has seven recognised subspecies.
Of all the studies done on sloth diet, the Brown-throated is the most well documented. In two studies carried out in 1975 and 1995, both in populations of Brown-throated sloth, one identified 28 types of tree and 3 types of liana in the diet, the other study identified 16 types of plant in the diet. They are known to prefer young leaves which make up most of the plant matter consumed.
The brown throated sloth has also been known to supplement the water they get from their leafy diet, by drinking from rivers.
Linnaeus’s Sloth (Choloepus didactylus) Diet
Linnaeus’s Two-Toed Sloth live in many countries across South America, including Brazil, possibly Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, The Guyanas, Peru and Venezuela. The limbs of Linnaeus’s Sloth are more even sized than those of three-toed varieties, and they tend to be bigger in general.
According to the Smithsonian National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute, despite being mostly herbivore, the Linnaeus’s Sloth has been known to snack on larvae insects but it’s not clear if these observations are in captivity or in the wild. These Sloth are also known to dine on fruit and green shoots as well as leaves.
In captivity however, they appear to be fed more ‘regionally available’ foods, such as corn, apples and bananas. It has been suggested that such a diet, high in sugars and energy, is too much for the Sloths slow metabolism and actually detrimental to their health.
Hoffmann’s Sloth (Choloepus hoffmanni) Diet
Hoffmann’s Two-Toed Sloth live in two separate areas north and south of the Andes mountains in Central America and South America. North of the Andes they can be found in Honduras in Central America, spreading to Ecuador in the South. South of the Andes they are found in Peru, Bolivia and Brazil.
There are 5 recognized subspecies of the Hoffmann’s sloth that live across their range.
Unlike most of the three-toes variety of sloth, the Hoffmann’s sloth will eat a range of fruit, flowers, berries and buds in addition to the heavily leaf based diet.
How Do Sloths Eat?
They have made extraordinary adaptations to an arboreal browsing lifestyle. Sloths have very large, specialized, slow-acting stomachs with multiple compartments in which symbiotic (the living together of two dissimilar organisms) bacteria break down the tough leaves.
Sloths have a low metabolic rate and a low body temperature (91° Fahrenheit). This keeps their food and water needs to a minimum. They have small molars which they use to chew up their leafy food. Their stomach has many separate compartments that are used to digest the tough cellulose (a component of plant material that they eat).
As much as two-thirds of a well fed sloths body weight consists of the contents of its stomach and the digestive process can take as long as a month or more to complete.
How Much Do Sloths Eat?
According to research documented in 2015, three toed sloth eat as little as 75 grams of leaves per day, and as it can take weeks to digest a single leaf, they always have a full stomach.
Given the small amount of food they can metabolize, and the time it takes them to do so, sloth sleep for much of the time, are relatively motionless for much of their awake time, and move very little, at night each day.
What Do Baby Sloths Eat?
Baby sloths don’t take long to start eating the same foods as their mothers. From around one week old, they are already supplementing the milk they get from their mother with leaves. They learn what leaves they can eat, by licking their mothers lips, and by tasting the leaves from her mouth when she eats.
Do Sloths Hunt?
Sloths are very slow, and are not built for walking or running. They spend the vast majority of their time hanging in the trees, and very little time on the ground. Quick movement burns more energy and they are not built for that, so they would make pretty poor hunters.
As they are predominantly herbivores and folivores they thankfully have no need to hunt. But there are accounts that suggest some omnivore behaviour with the Linnaeus’s two-toed sloth, though data to back this up is lacking.
Importance of Sloths in the Ecosystem
The sloth plays an important part in it’s ecosystem, particularly for the trees. They help not only by eating the leaves of the trees, but in fertilizing them with their dung. Some species, such as the pale throated variety also co-exist symbiotically with a type of algae that exists in their fur, or insects such as the sloth moth. They are considered to play an integral part in the ecosystem of the South American tropical rainforests.
Threats to Sloths
The main predators of sloths are the jaguar, the harpy eagle and humans. Though anacondas, ocelot and margays are also known to be significant predators. The majority of sloth deaths in Costa Rica are from contact with electrical lines and from poachers. Their claws also provide a further unexpected deterrent to human hunters – when hanging upside-down in a tree they are held in place by the claws themselves and often do not fall down even if shot from below.
Predators are not the only threat though. Habitat loss is also a major threat to many species, with land lost to farming, logging and human settlement expansion. In some cases, arguments between locals, governments and conservation groups has stunted efforts to protect these animals and their habitats.
Sloths need their trees, and the trees need their sloths.
Did You Know
- It takes a sloth almost 28 days to digest just one leaf!
- Sloths always have a full stomach and can’t eat much on a daily basis.
- Opposite to most mammals, sloths eat more on hot days when they are better able to metabolize the food.
- Despite popular belief, sloths do not eat the symbiotic algae and fungi growing on their fur! That is a myth.
- Some sloth do eat soil and stones from the ground.
- It is a myth that Sloths eat bird eggs.
- A sloth’s teeth are always growing and have to be worn down by the food they eat.
- A sloth’s clinging in the trees is actually a reflex action, and they have been found hanging on even after death.