Feeding ecology and diet

Although they are descended from insectivorous ancestors, the sloths have become herbivores, feeding primarily on leaves. It is commonly believed that they subsist entirely on the leaves of Cecropia trees, although they actually consume leaves, buds, and flowers from more than 60 species of trees and lianas. The myth about sloths spending their entire lives in a single tree probably arose because they move slowly, sleep for approximately 20 hours a day and are most easily seen in Cecropia trees, which have a single slender trunk and a compact canopy, making sloths more visible when in them. They prefer new, young growth, and so move frequently to take advantage of plants in their home ranges that are putting out new growth. All sloths probably ingest insects upon occasion, and Choloe-pus will actively seek bird eggs and will take nestlings if it can capture them. Sloths are cecal, or hindgut, fermenters, and process their leafy diet slowly, eliminating solid and a small amount of liquid waste once every five or so days.

Anteaters feed almost entirely on ants and termites, and in short bouts. They typically dig a small hole in the nest with the largest claw on one forefoot and lick up the insects that come to investigate the problem and to repair the nest. Within a short time soldier ants or termites become alerted to the breach and swarm out to defend their home. Anteaters therefore feed in short bouts, and can often be seen brushing at their eyes and ears after leaving the nest. Although they have thick, tough skin, evidently ant and termite soldier mandibles are able to pinch hard enough to annoy them. In a single day an anteater will visit many nests, feeding for only a minute or two at each. The three living anteater genera differ greatly in size and partition the insect resources similarly. The smallest genus, Cyclopes, feeds on the smallest insects, medium-sized Tamandua feeds on medium-sized prey, and the giant anteater takes the largest ants and termites.

The three-toed sloth (Bradypus infuscatus) is extremely slow when moving on the ground. (Photo by © Michael Fogden. Bruce Coleman, Inc. Reproduced by permission.)

In contrast to herbivorous sloths and insectivorous ant-eaters, the armadillos are omnivores, feeding on insects, small invertebrates, and plant materials as they occur in their habitat. They may take different foods at different times of the year and according to seasonal availability. This is probably the ancestral diet for the group. The extinct giant armadillos probably had food habits similar to those of living armadillos. It has been assumed, based primarily on the dentition that emphasizes the ability to grind plant foods, that the glyptodonts were herbivores and may have specialized on grasses.

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