With its long snout, bushy tail and solid limbs, the giant anteater - Myrmecophaga tridactyla - is one of the most unusual looking mammals in existence. It is a fascinating creature, with a highly specialised diet and lifestyle and a peaceful, if at times slow-witted, nature.
The giant anteater is the largest species of anteater, typically growing to a length of 1.0-1.3 metres - not including the tail - and weighing between 22 and 40 kilograms. The tail adds a further 65-90cm to the anteater's length, and is covered in dense, shaggy hair up to 40cm long. Giant anteaters range from grey to brown in colour, yet all have a distinctive black stripe with a white border, running from beneath the snout to about halfway along the side of the body. This colouration is thought to provide a measure of camouflage, especially in forested areas.
Perhaps the giant anteater's most distinctive physical characteristic is the long, thin snout. As its name suggests, the giant anteater's diet consists primarily of ants and termites - up to 30,000 of them per day - although it will happily eat grubs or other insects, and occasionally fruit. Such a specialised diet requires specialised eating equipment. As a result, the snout houses a remarkable tongue measuring over 60cm in length, which is capable of being flicked in and out of the mouth 150 times per minute. The tongue is covered in sticky saliva and microscopic spines, which enable the anteater to pull ants and termites from the heart of their nests. As the anteater has no teeth or jaws to speak of, in the course of eating it swallows pebbles which, along with its hard palate and unusually strong stomach muscles, allow food to be ground up within the digestive system.
The anteater has extremely strong front legs with sharp claws, which enable it to break into hard ant and termite mounds. These legs are also useful for self-defence against the anteater's only natural predators, the puma and the jaguar. Indeed, the forelegs are so strong - and the claws so sharp - that the anteater's embrace can be fatal to an attacking animal.
Ants and termites are not particularly nutritious and, as a result, energy conservation is a priority. The anteater has a very slow metabolism and a body temperature of 32.7°C - one of the lowest average body temperatures of all mammals. It moves slowly, is not considered to be especially intelligent, and sleeps for around 15 hours each day. It will find a suitable spot for sleeping in hollow logs or by digging into the ground, and sleeps covered by its long, bushy tail, using it to maintain body heat.
Wild giant anteaters are found only in Central and South America, and live in a range of habitats ranging from tropical forests and open woodland to dry savannah, and are as likely to be found in densely populated areas as in rural areas. Their sleeping habits appear to be diurnal by nature, but will vary depending on the density of human population, becoming almost entirely nocturnal in densely populated areas.
Giant anteaters are solitary, territorial creatures and will roam an area of about a 2.5km2, perhaps up to 4km2 for the female. This is to ensure that the anteater has access to enough ant or termite nests to provide adequate food. The anteater feeds only briefly from each nest, partly so that insect colonies are not exhausted and are quickly able to rebuild their numbers - thus providing a sustainable source of food for many years, but also because the aggrieved insects will promptly start to attack the raiding anteater.
Unfortunately, the giant anteater is hunted for its pelt, its meat or simply for sport. As a result it is currently classified as a 'vulnerable' species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources.
The mating rituals of the anteater are not fully understood. What is known is that at some point the anteater will break from its usual solitary existence to find a partner. During mating, the female lays on her side and the male squats over her. The female gestates for 190 days, and gives birth in a standing position, rearing up on her hind legs and supporting herself with her tail.
The baby anteater is born fully covered in fur, and will spend the first year of its life being carried along by the mother, clinging to her back. The young anteater will leave its mother after two years or sooner if she becomes pregnant during that time.
- The Online Anteater has more information on these fascinating creatures than you can shake a stick at.