Giant anteater (Myrmecophaga tridactyla)

French: Grand Fourmilier, Tamanoir
Spanish: Hormiguero Gigante, Oso Caballo, Oso Palmero
GenusMyrmecophaga (1)
SizeMale weight: up to 50 kg (2)
Female weight: up to 55 kg (3)
Length: up to 2 m (3)

The giant anteater is classified as Vulnerable (VU) on the IUCN Red List (1), and listed on Appendix II of CITES (4).

As its common name suggests, the giant anteater (Myrmecophaga tridactyla) is the largest of the living anteaters and is instantly recognised around the world. They are strange-looking animals, with the body roughly divided into three equal regions: the long nose and head, the body and the tail (3). Beneath the skin of the long nose is a bone tube formed by the fusion of the upper and lower jaw (3). The nose houses an impressively long, sticky tongue, which can measure up to 50 centimetres in length (3). They are protected from the bites of soldier ants and termites by their rubbery skin and very long hairs, which can measure up to 45 centimetres in length (3). A black stripe runs from beneath the snout to the mid-torso and is banded by white or cream (5). The front feet bear huge claws and giant anteaters walk on their knuckles with their claws folded up into their palms for protection (5). Male and female anteaters look so alike that females can only be identified when they are accompanied by their offspring (3). The name of the giant anteater in Portugese is 'tamandua-bandeira'; the word tamandua is of Indian origin and means 'insect-eater' and 'bandeira' is a portugese word meaning 'flag'. This name refers to the large tail of the species, which is thought to look like a flag (3).

The giant anteater's range extends from the southern tip of Mexico to Uruguay and northwestern Argentina, although the highest densities are found in South America (5). They are found in all regions of Brazil but are very rare or locally extinct in highly disturbed areas and are commonly found in protected areas (6).

Inhabits grassland savannas, deciduous woodlands and rainforests (5). In Brazil, it occurs in the cerrado, a large area of woodland and savannah that is one of the world's most important 'hot-spots' for biodiversity (3).

Giant anteaters are predominantly solitary, except for mothers and their offspring (7). A single offspring is produced after a gestation period of 190 days (7). They are carried on their mother's back, aligned with the white stripe, so that they are very well camouflaged (2). Young are weaned after two months, although they may continue to be carried on their mother's back until they are nine months old (7). Recently, females have been discovered to occasionally produce a second infant, carrying the newborn on the back whilst accompanied by the older infant on foot (3).

There is considerable regional variation in behaviour of giant anteaters. In some areas, they are largely nocturnal, but in other regions they are active mainly during the day (8). They are almost blind, but have a very keen sense of smell (3). The majority of the diet is made up of ants and termites, which are detected by smell (5). Once a termite mound or anthill has been located, the anteater rips it open with its powerful claws and 'drinks' in the prey by creating a vacuum in its throat, sucking the insects in, aided by their long sticky tongues (3). An individual may eat up to 30,000 ants in one day (7). Contrary to popular belief, giant anteaters rarely feed from tall termite mounds, but seem to prefer low mounds (3). Ants and termites are not especially nutritious and to compensate for this, the giant anteater conserves energy by moving around slowly. They allow their body temperatures to fluctuate within limits, and they have the lowest body temperature of any terrestrial mammal, reaching as low as 32 degrees Celsius (3). Anteaters sleep for as much as 16 hours a day out in the open with their tail wrapped around them like a blanket (3).

The giant anteater and its habitat are threatened by agricultural encroachment and fires, both natural and man-made (3).

Law protects this species in the majority of countries where it is found (9), and it is listed on Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which stipulates that any exports require a permit (4). The giant anteater also occurs within some protected areas such as Conservation International's Guayana Shield, one of the largest blocks of undisturbed rainforest in the world (10).

For more information on the giant anteater:

Information authenticated by Professor Robert Young of the Pontifical Catholic University of Minas Gerais (PUC-Minas), Brazil and Amanda Ferguson of the Zoological Society of London:

  1. IUCN Red List (May, 2011)
  2. Ferguson, A. (2004) Pers. comm.
  3. Young, R. (2004) Life in the slow lane. BBC Wildlife Magazine, 22(6): 58 - 63.
  4. CITES (July, 2002)
  5. The Online Anteater (July, 2002)
  6. Miranda, G.H.B. (2004) Ecologia e conservacao do tamadua-bandeira (Myrmecophaga tridactyle, Linnaeus, 1758) no Parque Nacional das Emas, PhD Thesis. Presented to the Ecology program, at University of Brasilia.
  7. Animal Diversity Web (July, 2002)$narrative.html
  8. Young, R.J. (2004) Pers. comm.
  9. Ecolex (July, 2002)
  10. Conservation International (June, 2008)