Classified as vulnerable by the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature), with its populations in decline across much of its range, the giant anteater (Myrmecophaga tridactyla) is also known as the ant bear, although it is in fact related to the sloth.
Unlike its arboreal or semi-arboreal anteater and sloth cousins, the giant anteater is a mostly terrestrial mammal, although it is able to climb trees and is also a good swimmer. Its preferred habitats vary from rainforest to savannah-like grasslands, swamps and dry forests, and its natural range extends from Central America to northwestern Argentina.
As its name suggests, the giant anteater is the largest member of the anteater family. Males can weigh around 40 kilograms (90 pounds) and grow to 7 feet (2.10 meters) in length, while the smaller females can weigh up to 39 kilograms (86 pounds).
The giant anteater’s appearance is unforgettable. Every aspect of its physical features appears stretched. They are characterized by their elongated snouts, long front claws, and extremely long bushy tail. The giant anteater’s gray coat is interrupted by white forelimbs and a black, white-bordered area extending from the shoulder to the throat. A stiff mane stretches along the entire length of the giant anteater’s back.
Among the only mammals to have no teeth, giant anteaters feed mostly on ants and termites. While both their eyesight and hearing are poor, their sense of smell is highly developed. In spite of their poor eyesight, giant anteaters may be active by day as well as night.
Giant anteaters feed by depressing their lower jaw just enough to allow them to flick out their slender tongue, which can be up to 60 centimeters (24 inches) long and is coated with backward pointing papillae and thick saliva to facilitate the gathering of insects. When a giant anteater is feeding, it can flick its tongue back and forth up to three times a second. The giant anteater possesses a secondary palate, so that when its tongue is retracted it does not interfere with the animal’s breathing.
When feeding, the giant anteater uses its extremely long front claws to break open ant nests and termite mounds. Studies have shown that although they are more than capable of consuming in excess of 30,000 ants or termites a day, giant anteaters are careful not to fully destroy the nests or mounds they break open. Instead, they will “harvest” a given location, before moving on to another site. The front claws used by giant anteaters for digging are so long that it must walk on its “knuckles”, or wrists, in the manner of African gorillas and chimpanzees.
Giant anteaters give birth to a single pup, which the mother may carry on her back for up to nine months, until it is weaned.
The giant anteater’s natural predators are jaguars and pumas. But while the giant anteater is toothless, it is far from defenseless. When threatened, individuals will lift themselves up onto their hind legs and use their long claws as weapons. Reports have been received of cornered giant eaters seriously wounding or even killing hunters.
During the camera trap studies we conducted in the forests around our own Tambopata Ecolodge in August and September 2018, we were delighted to be able to confirm that the giant anteater is present in the tropical forest habitat we are working to protect.