Amazon rainforest Mammals myrmecophagy

Walking With Giant Anteaters

Do you know anteaters?

Imagine yourself in the Amazon rainforest, walking on a trail, when suddenly you see something big moving in front of you. Even knowing most of the species of an area, your brain will spend some minutes processing the image in front of you… long fur, about two feet tall standing on “all fours.” But…. where is the head? You are then confronted with the bizarre sight of a conical head and a tiny pair of eyes. The animal has stopped in front of you, and by the looks of it, it seems that the creature is also having trouble figuring out what creature are you. Less than a second passes and it runs away. Was that a giant anteater? … YES!!! IT WAS A GIANT ANTEATER!!! You can imagine my excitement.

Maybe you haven’t seen a giant anteater, or if you have, maybe you don’t know very much about them. Giant anteaters occur only in South and Central America (from Honduras to Paraguay and Argentina) and are extremely elusive animals. They are known in scientific classification as Myrmecophaga tricdactyla, and are very sensitive to human disturbances of the places they live. For that reason they are they are more frequently found in pristine forests and tropical savannas.

Giant anteater are in the taxonomic Order Pilosa, which also includes the sloths. In the past they were grouped in the same taxonomic group with armadillos but, recently, scientists examined their DNA and separated armadillos into a different order [1]. An anteater’s elongated skull (around 450 mm) and sticky tongue (which can be projected to a distance equal or greater than the length of its head) are adaptations for a diet based on ants and termites (also known as myrmecophagy). They do not have teeth but have huge claws that can be used for defense. Their big claws help them to easily open ant nests to get lunch [2]. Giant anteaters are solitary animals that have no more than one offspring each year.

I am telling you about giant anteaters because they are one of my favorite animals and because I may be a little homesick. But also because this is quiet, little known, and strange species is endangered. The giant anteater is currently listed as a vulnerable species by International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (UICN) and it is already extinct in El Salvador, Guatemala y Uruguay [3]. There are four alive species of anteater in the world: The silky anteater Cyclopes didactylus, the southern tamandua Tamandua tetradactyla, the northern tamandua Tamandua mexicana and the giant anteater Myrmecophaga tricdactyla, but you can guess which one is bigger (1000-1900 mm of head and body, 640-900mm of tail).

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Fig 1 Giant anteater with offspring (World Wildlife Fund & Botanical Research Institute of Texas)

Picture Challenge:

  • Find the eyes of the Giant Anteater.

  • Can you spot the baby?

I hope that you will have the opportunity to meet one of these wonderful creatures and can appreciate the amazing animal adaptation and evolutionary forces at work. Just be careful when you find one; they can be dangerous animals even though they look so cute and harmless.

Bibliography cited:

[1] Wilson, Don E., and DeeAnn M. Reeder, eds. Mammal species of the world: a taxonomic and geographic reference. Vol. 2. JHU Press, 2005.

[2] Naples, Virginia L. “Morphology, Evolution and Function of Feeding in the Giant Anteater (Myrmecophaga Tridactyla).” Journal of Zoology 249, no. 1. (1999): 19–41.

[3] Miranda F., Bertassoni, A. and Abba, A.M. 2014. “ *Myrmecophaga tridactyla *En: The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2014”. (accessed Feb 18, 2016).

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