There are four species of anteaters in the Amazon: the giant anteater which is terrestrial, and two species
of tamanduas and the pygmy anteater, which are arboreal. Here we focus on the giant anteater (Myrmecophaga
tridactyla) as it is the commonest species and the best known. It's the largest of the species, reaching
about 7 feet from head to tail and weighing about 85 pounds.
The giant anteater, also called the ant bear, must be one of the weirdest-looking animals in the Amazon
rainforest. Its head is elongated, with the snout and mouth fused into a single tube, resembling a
vacuum cleaner extension, while its tail, sticking from the body parallel with the ground looks like a
witch's broom. The powerful forelimbs end in a set of thick strong claws that serve as defense as
well as their primary role of tearing open the nests of ants. Three of these claws are so large, the paw
folds inward and the anteater walks on the outside of its paws, unable to use the soles.
The anteater's appearance reflects its adaptation to its diet, exclusively comprised of ants. Many Amazon
ants pack a powerful punch (well, sting). But their attacks do not deter the anteater. Fur along the snout is
short and densely packed, stopping ants from delivering their stings. Further up, the tiny ears and eyes
provide minimum of exposed area for the ants' assaults. The anteater has a distinctive coat pattern, gray
on top with a black stripe widening from its neck to its forequarters. How this is significant in anteater
life is uncertain. It is unlikely to be camouflage and should a predator threaten, the anteater defends
itself with its strong claws. The body is covered with long coarse hair, which may help protect it from
thorns and spiky leaves as well as ants.
HABITAT AND DISTRIBUTION
Rainforest and savanna are home to the giant anteater. In South and Central America, its range is limited by
presence of ants, which are found just about everywhere. Its domain includes the northern half of South
America except for the Andes and the coastal plain, from northern Argentina to Belize and Guatemala.
FEEDING AND DIET
The anteater's most remarkable adaptation is arguably its skull, in which the lower jaw is entirely fused
with the upper, preventing the animal from opening its mouth at all. It lacks teeth, one character placing it
in the edentates (meaning "no teeth"), an order of mammals more correctly called Xenarthra, as it is known
among taxonomists. You could think of the jaws as the ultimate straw, but rather than suck up food or water,
the anteater uses its tongue. When deployed, the tongue is extended into small crevices in ants' nests.
Sticky saliva covering the tongue traps the insects that are drawn into the mouth as the tongue retracts
(think of sucking a strand of spaghetti). But the whole process takes a fraction of a second. Once stuck on
the tongue, there's no escape for the hapless ants. The claws are used to open up nests or tunnels,
whereupon the tongue takes over. The long snout harbors a nose, equipped with a formidable sense of smell,
used to detect prey.
The anteater roams around equally at ease day or night, but usually on its own. After a male and female do
get together, a single young is born, cared for entirely by the female. The juvenile clings to fur atop her
back, riding in the manner of a jockey on a horse. The mother lacks teeth or fingers to pick up the cub, which
must find its own way to the riding position.
If it avoids predators such as the jaguar or mountain lion, the anteater may live 10 to 15 years. Close
to inhabited areas, its lifespan may be considerably shorter. It is vulnerable to car impacts. The
anteater is extinct in some places and, although it is not regularly hunted for food, people kill the
anteater out of ignorance or for sport. It is now rare where it was formerly common, particularly in
Central America, where confirmed sightings are very unusual. In undisturbed areas it may be abundant
reaching highest population density in grasslands where ant mounds are easy to see, such as the Pantanal
region of southeast Brazil. The species is considered to be threatened (IUCN Vulnerable).