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Giant Anteater

The Giant Anteater, Myrmecophaga tridactyla, is the largest species of anteater. It is found in Central and South America. It is the only species in the Myrmecophaga genus.

It is a solitary animal, found in many habitats, including grasslands, deciduous forests and rainforests. It feeds mainly on ants and termites, sometimes up to 30,000 insects in a single day.

The name "Myrmecophaga tridactyla" is from Greek murmekos, ant and phagein, to eat. Therefore, "ant eating".


The giant anteater is one of few taxa of mammals without any teeth even in a mature state. An anteater instead crushes insects it consumes using hard growths found on the inside of its mouth, and its muscular stomach. Sand and small rocks have also been found in anteaters' stomachs, suggesting that these are ingested to aid digestion (possible gastroliths). They have an average body temperature of 32.7oC, which is one of the lowest of all land-living mammals. This and slow rate of metabolism means it is far from the most active mammal.Piper, Ross (2007), Extraordinary Animals: An Encyclopedia of Curious and Unusual Animals, Greenwood Press. Unlike the majority of mammalian species, the giant anteater's gastric acid does not contain hydrochloric acid; rather, it uses formic acid produced by the anteater's prey.

It grows to a size of up to 7 feet long, with a 4 foot long head and torso, and a 3 foot long tail. Generally it weighs from 65 to 140 pounds .

The giant anteater is covered with stiff, straw-like hair which grows up to 40 cm long on the tail. Young have soft hair until they are mature. The dominant colouring may be grey or brown, but all have a diagonal black and white shoulder stripe.

The giant anteater is generally acknowledged to have a very keen sense of smell, used to locate ants, but is thought to have poor sight and hearing.

The giant anteater does not sleep in any fixed place, instead curling up in abandoned burrows and hollows. It covers its body with its long, bushy tail to sleep.

In the wild, the giant anteater is nocturnal or active at night near human settlements and diurnal or active during the day elsewhere. It stays mainly on dry ground but is a strong and capable swimmer.

When threatened, it stands up on its hind legs, using its tail to aid balance, and may strike extremely rapidly with its claws or "hug" attackers much like a bear. An adult anteater is capable of fending off or even killing its main predators, big cats such as the jaguar and the cougar.


Despite its name, Myrmecophaga tridactyla, from the Greek meaning 'three-fingered ant eater', the anteater has five digits on each foot; however the middle three digits of the forefeet have elongated claws. These are extremely strong and are used to break open ant and termite mounds in order to feed, as well as effective defense from predators. The anteater walks on its knuckles in order to protect them, giving it a shuffling gait. The forefeet also have one other smaller claw, and the rear feet have five small claws.

The anteater's tongue can reach two feet in length, with a width of only 1/2 inch . The anteater can cover its tongue in a sticky saliva, allowing it to trap ants, and can extend and withdraw it up to 150 times per minute. By convergent evolution pangolins, the giant anteater, and the tube-lipped nectar bat all have tongues which are detached from their hyoid bone and extend past their pharynx deep into the thorax. This extension lies between the sternum and the trachea. Their wrist bones are adapted in much the same way as those of chimpanzees to enable them to knuckle-walk.


It bears a single offspring after a gestation period of 190 days, which will stay near the mother until she becomes pregnant again. The baby spends much of the first part of its life riding on its mother's back, until it is nearly half her size.

The mating system of M. tridactyla is not well known. Reproductive behavior is primarily observed in captivity. The most notable witness to giant anteater mating is Canadian researcher William Sommers. So far, all that he has found is that the male stands over the female, who lies on her side during copulation. Further research is pending.

Gestation is approximately 190 days, after which females give birth to a single young that weighs about 2.8 lb. Females give birth standing up and immediately the young anteater climbs onto her back. Young are born with a full coat of hair and adult-like markings. Breeding occurs year-round in captivity and the wild, though seasonal breeding times have been reported in portions of their range. Inter-birth intervals can be as low as nine months. Sexual maturity is reached between 2.5 and 4 years. The mammary glands are lateral to the 'armpits' on the chest.

Breeding interval: Giant anteaters can breed as often as every 9 months, though it is often longer.

Breeding season: Giant anteaters may breed year round, or seasonally depending on region.

Number of offspring: 1 (average)

Gestation period: 190 days (average)

Time to weaning: 6 months (average)

Time to independence: 24 months (average)

Age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female): 2.50 to 4 years

Age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male): 2.50 to 4 years

Communication and perception

Most communication occurs between young and their mothers or during fighting. It consists of snorts, sniffs, and hisses, as well as roaring during fights. They have rather poor sight and hearing.

Food habits

Giant anteaters eat ants, termites and soft-bodied grubs. Using the long, sharp claws on their forelimbs, they open insect colonies and tree trunks. They then use the tongue to collect the eggs, larvae, and adult insects. The salivary glands secrete sticky saliva during feeding that coats the tongue. They only stay at one ant colony for a short period of time to avoid soldier ants, but giant anteaters can consume a few thousand insects in minutes. The tongue is attached to the sternum and moves very quickly, flicking 150 times per minute. They will eat fruit and birds' eggs on occasion.


The jaguar (Panthera onca) and the cougar (Puma concolor) are known predators of giant anteaters. Anteaters use their immense front claws to defend themselves from predators, but their typical response to threat is to run away. Their size makes them invulnerable to all but the largest of predators, jaguars and cougars primarily. They are often killed by humans, either intentionally through hunting or unintentionally through collisions with cars.

In April 2007, an anteater at the Florencio Varela Zoo near Buenos Aires, Argentina attacked Melisa Casco, a zookeeper, mauling her abdomen and legs with its sharp front claws. The 19-year old zookeeper was admitted to the hospital in critical condition and died following leg amputation surgery.

Conservation status

Habitat destruction is the primary threat to giant anteaters. They are listed as Appendix II by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). Appendix II is defined as a species not necessarily threatened to extinction but one that should be controlled in trade to avoid overuse. They are listed as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN). 'Vulnerable' is defined as an estimated population reduction of 20% in the next 10 years. It is estimated that there are only as few as 5,000 left in the wild, and only 90 live in zoos across the United States.


Louise H. Emmons and Francois Feer, 1997 Neotropical Rainforest Mammals, A Field Guide.

External links

The Online Anteater: information, images, fun facts, and other stuff about the giant anteater

ARKive images and movies of the giant anteater.


File:Anteaters, Reid park zoo.jpg|At Reid Park Zoo, Tucson, Arizona

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This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article Giant Anteater

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