Leishmania parasites alternate between extracellular promastigotes in sandflies and intracellular amastigotes in mammals. These protozoans acquire sphingolipids (SLs) through de novo synthesis (to produce inositol phosphorylceramide) and salvage (to obtain sphingomyelin from the host). A single ISCL (Inositol phosphoSphingolipid phospholipase C-Like) enzyme is responsible for the degradation of both inositol phosphorylceramide (the IPC hydrolase or IPCase activity) and sphingomyelin (the SMase activity). Recent studies of a L. major ISCL-null mutant (iscl -) indicate that SL degradation is required for promastigote survival in stationary phase, especially under acidic pH. ISCL is also essential for L. major proliferation in mammals. To further understand the role of ISCL in Leishmania growth and virulence, we introduced a sole IPCase or a sole SMase into the iscl - mutant. Results showed that restoration of IPCase only complemented the acid resistance defect in iscl - promastigotes and improved their survival in macrophages, but failed to recover virulence in mice. In contrast, a sole SMase fully restored parasite infectivity in mice but was unable to reverse the promastigote defects in iscl -. These findings suggest that SL degradation in Leishmania possesses separate roles in different stages: while the IPCase activity is important for promastigote survival and acid tolerance, the SMase activity is required for amastigote proliferation in mammals. Consistent with these findings, ISCL was preferentially expressed in stationary phase promastigotes and amastigotes. Together, our results indicate that SL degradation by Leishmania is critical for parasites to establish and sustain infection in the mammalian host.