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.
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).
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.
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?