Sloths bizarre feeding habit: eating toilet contents!

By in science

Sloths are mostly known as rather slow-moving adorable creatures that spend their days eating leaves and sleeping. However, a recent paper in the journal Mammalian Biology shows they might actually have a side to them that makes them a little less adorable. Heymann and colleagues (2010) reported that two-toed sloths were found to have developed the charming habit of climbing into an outdoor toilet and eating its contents! This unusual feeding habit was observed at a research station in the Amazon rainforest of North-eastern Peru.

Sloth in toilet

A sloth coming out of a toilet, just having had a dirty meal..

On the first occasion in 2001, a researcher wanting to use the toilet discovered a sloth was inside the toilet, hanging upside down underneath the wooden bars. “The sloth was scooping with one hand from the semi-liquid manure composed of faces, urine, and toilet paper and then eating from the hand”, as the authors nicely describe.

A total of more than 25 of these sloth excursions were observed during the following years. On one occasion even a mother holding her baby was seen visiting the toilet! (see picture below).

Baby sloth in toilet

A female sloth and her baby entering a toilet. Photo by M. Stojan-Dolar.

Although this peculiar behaviour might at first glance look like a bizarre anecdote, the authors speculate that in this way sloths might be vulnerable to human diseases since sloths often live close to people.

So why would these sloths prefer human waste material to fresh leaves?

Normally sloths hardly ever come down from the trees in which they live. They only descend to the forest floor to change trees or once to twice a week to defecate, making the behaviour even more surprising.

The authors put forward three possibilities for the sloths radical behaviour: they might feed on faeces as a direct source of nutrients, they may gulp the semi-liquid contents of the toilet to acquire salt and minerals, or they may be eating insect larvae that are present.

Sloth eating toilet contents

A dirty sloth that just had a nice evening meal in the camp toilet. Photo by M. Stojan-Dolar.

I think the sloths might indeed feed on human faeces because if often contains a lot of wasted nutrients. It may not even be that rare, since most dogs can be found doing ‘something’ similar (although not actually entering a toilet ;) ). However, I guess the people at the research station were probably not eating a very nutrient-rich diet, since they were living at such a remote location.

Although sloths may be a little less adorable now, they have become even more fascinating because of this bizarre behaviour! What do you think about sloths and their unusual feeding habit?

Heymann, E., Flores Amasifuén, C., Shahuano Tello, N., Tirado Herrera, E., & Stojan-Dolar, M. (2010). Disgusting appetite: Two-toed sloths feeding in human latrines Mammalian Biology – Zeitschrift fur Saugetierkunde DOI: 10.1016/j.mambio.2010.03.003
  • Alan

    As a non-biologist, I’d say that publicising this too much might be a mistake ;) The public is probably not ready for such a vivid picture of sloth-habits.

    • Jolle Jolles

      HI Alan, thanks for your comment! I agree with you that the pictures are indeed rather graphic :-), however I think articles like this one are important because although maybe only showing anecdotal evidence, they contain an important message about animal behaviour and ecology and the human impact on wild animals.

  • Renier Aquino Alfeche

    Wow! That’s gross. I always thought that sloths are the cutest until I saw that picture. …reminded of that scene from Slum Dog Millionaire. LOL. Why did you do that sloth?

  • Renier Aquino Alfeche

    What’s even more gross is that I’ve actually seen one of those outdoor toilets from one of my travels. So I know what’s inside those stalls. Lucky for that sloth it didn’t drown in s__t. : )

    • Jolle Jolles

      Thanks for your comment Renier! Hope for you when you were travelling you didn’t see a sloth inside those outdoor toilets :)

  • Sanneke

    Jolle! I was waiting for this post. It’s hilarious, falling of my chair now!

    • Jolle Jolles

      Thanks Sanneke! Hope you didn’t hurt yourself :)

  • Joe

    HAHHAHAHHAHHAHA i know what they are doin in there! its cause two toed sloths are actually either closet perverts..or trying to get into the -ahem- market (just look at the guilty expression on that sloth’s face! – picture1). its high time they start making their own money. i believe they are trying to figure out how to install a camera down there, one of them probably accidentally dropped her button camera so thats why shes scooping around down there.. for a sloth, those things cost a lot!

    this is an valuable lesson learned, always check to see if there are any sloths/ sloth-installed-button-cameras in the toilet you are about to defecate in….. you never know >:)

    thanks for posting this you pioneer in the shunned areas of biology! Let us forge ahead in to the uncharted regions of the map!

  • Dennis

    First comment: Acckk!!

    Second comment: I wonder how this changes a sloth’s intestinal flora. You’d think the intestinal organisms related to digestion of leaves would be pretty different from the sorts of bugs selected by a diet of waste material from another species.

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  • andrew

    i luv sloths

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