What Do Sloths Eat?

A sloth on a tree
A sloth on a tree, Credit: Wikimedia/ Daniella Maraschiello

Sloths are known as the laziest mammals around. They hardly ever move, just hanging from trees all day. This makes you wonder – what do sloths eat that allows them to be so lazy? The secret is their plant-only diet. Sloths get all their nutrients from eating leaves, stems, and fruits. This low-energy herbivore diet supports their sluggish, motionless lifestyle in the treetops. Sloths can be total couch potatoes because the little plant food they eat perfectly fuels their lazy routines.

A Herbivore's Tropical Rainforest Menu

Sloths are herbivorous; their diet consists exclusively of plants and not animal meat. Their food is mainly made up of leaves, young plants and stems, ripened fruits, and even tree bark. The particular plants that sloths eat depend highly on the vegetation that grows in tropical rainforests of Central and South America where they live. Different types of sloths adjust to the most easy-to-find shrubs in the area of their natural habitat.

The Sloths' Leafy Main Course

A sloth eating leaves
A sloth eating leaves, Credit: Wikipedia/Christian Mehlführer, User:Chmehl

The majority of the diet for sloths is composed of leaves, which they enjoy eating from cecropia or hibiscus trees that are widely spread throughout the forest they live in. The digestive system of sloths is designed to allow them to consume large volumes of fresh green leaves, twigs, and leaf buds. It is not uncommon for adult sloths to consume up to 2.5 ounces (about 73.5 grams) of such food per day to meet their basic nutritional and hydration needs. Sloths are the masters of smell, allowing them to detect the juiciest leaves with the most nutrients to nourish themselves.

Sweet Tropical Fruits for Variety

The main diet of the sloth is easy to recognize – they are specialists in leaves. However, they sometimes indulge in various fruits available in the rainforest in season. In addition to the leaves, sweet and juicy fruits add variety and are also a source of Vitamin A, potassium, and natural sugars that supplement their diet.

A sloth biting on food
A sloth biting on food, Credit: Wikipedia/ Fruitwerks

Sloths have the best teeth for the job; the front bottom teeth can be seen jutting out, which makes them the perfect tool for ripping and tearing even the toughest skins and rinds of fruits.

Sloth Mealtimes: Infrequent but Substantial

Sloths have extremely slow metabolisms and digestion, much lower than other mammals their size. This allows them to eat infrequently and conserve tremendous energy. Their specialized multi-chambered stomachs use bacteria and fungi to gradually break down tough, fibrous plant matter over long periods.

Instead of snacking all day like other animals, sloths eat one big meal every few days. After digesting their last meal, they’ll have another large meal. During these big mealtimes, sloths stay still and save every bit of energy they can. Their idea of an exciting “hunt” for food is slowly finding the nearest leaves and fruits within reach. This effortless eating routine allows sloths to keep their famously lazy lifestyle, never moving from the trees.

Over millions of years, sloths naturally evolved traits perfect for their leafy diet and lazy eating habits. Natural selection gave sloths slow metabolisms, multiple stomach chambers, and specialized teeth and limbs. These allow sloths to live by eating leaves, stems, and fruits while expending very little energy high in the rainforest trees.

A plant-based menu provides just the right fuel for sloths’ extremely sedentary lifestyle – the laziest of any mammal. For these sluggish tree-dwellers, every part of how they eat and digest is ideally suited for a life of hanging motionless on branches.

References

LibGuides: Two-toed Sloths (Choloepus spp.) Fact Sheet: Diet & Feeding. (n.d.). https://ielc.libguides.com/sdzg/factsheets/twotoedsloths/diet

Garcés‐Restrepo, M. F., Peery, M. Z., & Pauli, J. N. (2019, January 16). The demography of a resource specialist in the tropics: Cecropia trees and the fitness of three-toed sloths. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. https://doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2018.2206

Cliffe, R. N., Haupt, R. J., Avey-Arroyo, J. A., & Wilson, R. P. (2015, April 2). Sloths like it hot: ambient temperature modulates food intake in the brown-throated sloth (Bradypus variegatus). PeerJ, 3, e875. https://doi.org/10.7717/peerj.875

Two-toed sloth. (n.d.). Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute. https://nationalzoo.si.edu/animals/two-toed-sloth

Top 10 incredible facts about the sloth | The Sloth Conservation Foundation. (n.d.). The Sloth Conservation Foundation. https://slothconservation.org/10-incredible-facts-about-the-sloth/

Copyright @smorescience. All rights reserved. Do not copy, cite, publish, or distribute this content without permission.


Join 20,000+ parents and educators
To get the FREE science newsletter in your inbox!