The giant anteater is only found in Central and South America. There are other species of anteater in these areas including the silky or pygmy anteater (Cyclopes didactylus), the Southern Tamandua or collared anteater (Tamandua tetradactyla) and the Northern Tamandua (Tamandua Mexicana).
Like the numbat, black rhino, okapi and giraffe, the giant anteater is a monotypic species meaning it is the only one in its genus. In this case the genus is Myrmecophaga and the full binomial name is Myrmecophaga tridactyla. The Greek murmekos means 'ant' and phagein 'to eat'. 'Tridactyla' means three-fingered but this is a misnomer in some respects.
Anteaters of the suborder Vermilingua (which means 'worm tongue') are also known as antbears.
The giant anteater is the largest species of anteater and is found from Honduras to northern Argentina. Fossil remains have also been found in Mexico.
The giant anteater isn't fussy about its habitat and copes quite well in grasslands, deciduous forests and rainforests.
The anteater may grow to a length of 7 feet but nearly half of this is tail and another 4 feet is head and torso. It weighs between 65 and 140 pounds. The head is narrow but long. It has small eyes and round ears. What looks like a nose is actually an elongated jaw with a small, black nose on the end.
Anteaters may have grey or brown stiff, straw-like hair but all have a very distinguished black and white stripe across the shoulders. The hair on the tail is long and bushy and is used to cover the body and nose when the animal curls up to sleep.
The anteater has an average body temperature of just 32.7o Centigrade which is very low for a terrestrial mammal. Because of its low rate of metabolism it is not a very active animal. The koala also has a slow metabolism and both spend a lot of time sleeping.
The anteater is equipped with five toes but the middle three digits on the front feet have elongated and extremely strong claws. The animal walks on its knuckles in order to protect the claws and this gives it a shuffling gait. The wrist bones are adapted for knuckle-walking much as the knuckles of the chimpanzee are adapted. The claws are used to break open termite mounds and ant nests.
The tongue is only ½ inch wide but has a reach of some 2 feet. When hunting for ants, the tongue is covered with a sticky saliva from large salivary glands. The ants stick to the tongue which can be flicked in and out of nests at the rate of 150 times a minute. My sources didn't say how conservationists are able to count this! The tongue is detached from the hyoid bone and extends past the pharynx deep into the thorax. It shares this trait with the pangolin and tube-lipped nectar bat.
The anteater does not have a 'fixed abode' but curls up to sleep in hollows or abandoned burrows. In the wild and near human settlements it is nocturnal but otherwise it goes about its business during the day. They do not seek out water but are strong and efficient swimmers.
The giant anteater may look rather harmless but if threatened or cornered it will rear on its hind legs. The tail is used to help balance the animal and it will strike very rapidly with its sharp claws. It will also hold a predator in a bear hug if they get close enough. It is quite capable of seeing off most predators including cougars and pumas.
The giant anteater communicates by snorting, hissing and sniffing. They also roar when fighting.
Its main diet is ants and termites. They ingest about 35,000 ants and termites every day. (I don't know how they calculate this either.) They do not destroy the nest generally but tear an opening with the claws, poke the long snout in and start flicking their tongue in and out. Because the ants sting the anteater, the animal may spend only a short time at each mound before moving on to the next.
They also eat soft-bodied grubs and occasionally fruit and birds' eggs. A keen sense of smell helps it locate nests but its sight and hearing are believed to be poorly developed.
There are very few mammals that don't have teeth but the giant anteater is one of them. Instead it has hard growths on the inside of the mouth. These are used to grind up its food. It also ingests small rocks and sand into a very muscular stomach which help grind the food much like the gizzard in a chicken has pebbles and grit to help in digestion. The powerful gastric acid (formic acid) is produced from its prey.
The breeding patterns of the giant anteater have not been well documented and most information has come from captive animals. Breeding occurs year-round in captivity and gestation is about 190 days. A single young is born weighing 2.8 pound. The mother stands to give birth and the baby immediately clambers onto the mother's back. The new-born has a full coat of soft hair and is marked like the adult. The mammary glands are lateral to the' armpits' of the front legs. The young is weaned at about six months but stays with the mother until about 2 years old or until she becomes pregnant again. They are sexually mature between 2.5 and 4 years. The life span in the wild is believed to be about 14 years.
Cougars and panthers are the main predator of the giant anteater although their size can be intimidating even to these 'big cats'. They are often hunted by humans or sometimes hit by vehicles. In 2007, a giant anteater mauled a 19 year old zookeeper. She later died from her wounds.
Habitat destruction is the main threat to the giant anteater. The IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) lists them as 'vulnerable'. The definition of 'vulnerable' is an estimated reduction in population of 20% in the next ten years. There may be as few as 5,000 left in the wild.