Native Animals of South America

The tamandua is an anteater. There are two species in the genus Tamandua – the southern and the northern. Other anteaters in South America include the giant anteater (Myrmecophaga tridactyla) and the silky anteater (Cyclopes didactylus). The nickname is 'stinker of the forest' as it can spray a foul secretion which is purported to be four times more powerful than a skunk's.

In their native areas, tamanduas are sometimes kept as pets by people specifically to keep their homes free of ants and termites.

The Southern tamandua (Tamandua tetradactyla) is found from Venezuela and Trinidad through to northern Argentina, southern Brazil and Uruguay. It is also called the collared anteater or lesser anteater. There are four subspecies of the southern tamandua.

Northern TamanduaCredit: Wikimedia:Author Dirk van der Made

The Northern tamandua (above) (Tamandua mexicana) is found north of northern Venezuela and northern Peru west of the Andes throughout Central America and into south-east Mexico.

The southern tamandua is found in a variety of habitats from tropical rainforests, grasslands and thorny scrub. It is often found near waterways in areas thick with vines and epiphytes.

The southern tamandua is about 34 to 65 cm long with the tail adding another 37 to 67 cm. They weigh between 3 and 8 kg. The coarse fur is thick and bristly. The base colour is tan, blond or brown with a broad black lateral band, covering nearly all the side of the body Although northern tamanduas have a black V going down the back, only some of the southern tamanduas have this V, mainly animals from the south-eastern part of the range. These have black markings from the shoulders to the rump. The black area is wider near the shoulder and extends down the front legs. There is no hair on the underside and tip of the tail which is partially prehensile.

The forearms are strong. The powerful forefeet have four clawed digits and the hind feet have five. Because of their long, sharp claws, they walk on the outsides of the 'hands' to avoid being damaged by the claws. They spend most of their time in the trees and are very clumsy on the ground. This is in contrast to the giant anteater who can get up a good gallop if he needs to. The muscles in the toes are strong giving it enough leverage to rip open wood with its large claw. Tough pads on the palms of the forefeet enable it to grip branches as it climbs and the partially prehensile tail helps in gripping and balancing.

Southern TamanduaCredit: Wikimedia

The tamandua has one of the lowest body temperatures of land mammals.

The head is tapered and the curved mouth long and tubular but with a very narrow opening, about the diameter of a small stick. The tongue is rounded and some 40 cm in length. It is covered with a sticky saliva and is thrust in and out of ant nests. The eyes of the tamandua are small and vision is not good but the ears are large and upright. The ears are about 5 cm in length as compared to 4 cm in the northern species.

The tongue is attached at the top of the sternum. The oral cavity is adapted to suit the tongue with the back of the soft palate level with the 5th cervical vertebra near the base of the neck. The giant anteater and pangolin have a similar structure.

Tamanduas are semi-arboreal and solitary. They are mostly nocturnal and nest in hollow tree trunks or abandoned burrows. Home ranges vary from 100 to 375 hectares. When aggravated they hiss and emit a foul-smelling odour, said to be four times as strong as that of the skunk. When threatened it will back up against a rock or tree (if it is on the ground) and grab for the opponent with its forearms. If in a tree, it will hold tight with the hind legs and tail and prepare to do battle with the long, curved claws of the forearms.

The stomach of a tamandua may contain over 0.45 kgs of ants. It may eat an estimated 9,000 ants in a day. They only eat for a short time at each nest which means they don't get stung or bitten as much. The tongue is sticky and has small barbs to help capture its prey.

It also eats termites, bees and a small amount of fruit. In zoos it is fed a high protein mix with honey and fruit as treats. Food is located by scent though ants with strong chemical defences are left alone. It will co-exist with giant anteaters as the tamandua can feed from nests in trees which are inaccessible to its bigger cousin.

The tamandua has no teeth but relies on the stomach to grind and digest its food after swallowing. It also ingests sand and grit into the gizzard where its food is ground up and broken down.

The sexes come together only to mate. Females are polyoestrous, coming into season several times a year.

One offspring is born after a gestation of about five months and is cared for by the mother. The baby weighs about 380 grams and is born a solid colour. Its eyes are open from birth and it already has big claws. It travels on the mother's back although she will place it on a branch while she forages. Juveniles mature at about 18 months of age and the life span is eight to twelve years.

The normal smell of the tamandua is enough to keep most predators at bay. However jaguars, birds of prey and smaller carnivores such as the margay are known to kill tamanduas. It is also killed by hunters as the thick tendons in the tail are made into rope.

Although the tamandua is widespread throughout its range it is not common. The tamandua is mentioned in Appendix II of CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora). Appendix II lists some 32,500 species that are not necessarily under threat of extinction but may be at risk if trade in such species is not strictly regulated.