Conservation Status– Vulnerable
The giant anteater is the largest of the anteater species (the others being the silky anteater and the tamandua). They measure between 40 and 48 inches (100 to 120cm). Their large tail measures between 28 and 35 inches (70 and 90cm). They have a heavily elongated head which measures about 30cm.
The male will weigh between 73 and 90 pounds. Females are smaller between 27 and 39kg (60-86 pound).
The giant anteater has mostly grey fur on the head and neck. A black stripe runs from the base of the head to midway up the back on each side of the body. The back and tail are brown in colouration. The tail is made up of long coarse hairs. Their skin is thick and tough allowing protection from ant bites.
The male has a median life expectancy of 14.8 years. Female anteaters are only expected to live for 10.5 years on average.
The anteater feeds mainly on a diet of insects and termites. Anteaters will find a nest of ants or termites and then begin to dig down into this. They can then remove the ants from the nest. Up to 15,000 ants may be eaten by one anteater each day.
Their head harbours a 24 inch long tongue which can flick out 150 times in a minute allowing them to quickly take many ants. This is covered in small spines which assist the anteater to eat the insects. They will not take all the ants meaning they can return in the future after the ant nest has replenished.
Giant anteaters are found in South and Central America. They live in the area between Honduras and Argentina. They only rarely venture into the andes mountain range though.
This species inhabits swamps, rainforests, woodlands and shrublands.
Wild giant anteaters will mate between March and May while captive ones will breed at any time of the year.
The male will follow around a female who is season and sniff her. The pair will share ant nests during the courting period. Once the female submits to the male a three day mating period will begin. During this they stay together and mate a number of times.
A single pup will be born after a period of 190 days. The mum delivers the baby standing up supported by her tail. The pup hitches a ride on mums back from birth. For the first 6 days of its life it is blind with its eyes still closed. During this time it communicates with the mum using a series of short whistles.
The pup will not separate from the mother for 4 weeks. When the mother lies down the pup will crawl under her front and drink milk for up to an hour at a time. To survive the pup will be drinking up to 10% of its body weight a day.
Once the first month of the baby’s life is over it begins to walk around on its own a bit more. The pup’s survival in the first 3 months is unlikely. Only 50% of giant anteater pups born survive past this point due to pneumonia and other health issues.
If it does survive it will wean from the mother at 9 months of age. It may stay with the mother well into its second year or whenever the mother has another baby.
By 2.5-4 years of age the pup is sexually mature and ready to have its own young.
The giant anteater is a prey item for pumas and jaguars. They have many weapons to protect themselves. When possible the anteater will gallop away from the predator. When confronted the anteater rises up on its tail and slashes at the predator. It has been seen that the anteaters claws can cut open a jaguar.
Anteaters have been observed to exhibit both diurnal and nocturnal patterns of behaviour.
The anteater will fold its claws up under their hands. By walking on their fists they keep the claws sharp so that they can keep these sharp for digging open ants nests and defending themselves.
The giant anteater is also adept at swimming freestyle and uses the snout as a snorkel while doing so.
‘Tridactyla’ the species name of the anteaters stands for ‘three fingers. This can be confusing as they have 5 fingers. The middle three are much longer than the other 2 though.
The tongue of the anteater is the longest of any mammal in relation to body size.
A human’s sense of smell has nothing on the anteater. Theirs is 40 times more powerful.
At 32.7oC the anteater’s body temperature is the one of the lowest for a mammal. It is believed this is an adaption to the low amount of calories in their diet.
Indigenous people in the amazon basin view the giant anteater as a trickster to the jaguar and humorous figure due to the length of their snout.
Photo Credit: Brocken Inaglory [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons