AppearanceThe giant anteater can be identified by its large size, elongated muzzle, and long tail. It has a total body length of 182–217 cm. Males weigh 33–41 kg and females weigh 27–39 kg, making the giant anteater the largest extant species in its suborder.
The head of the giant anteater, at 30 cm long, is particularly elongated, even when compared to other anteaters. Its tubular snout, which ends in its tiny mouth opening and nostrils, takes up most of its head. Its eyes and ears are relatively small. It has poor eyesight, but its sense of smell is 40 times more sensitive than that of humans. Giant anteaters can live around 16 years in captivity.
Unlike those of other mammals, the necks of anteaters, especially the giant, are thicker than the backs of their heads. A small hump can be found at the back of its neck. The giant anteater's coat is mostly grey and salted with white. Its fore limbs are white, with black bands around the wrists, while its hind limbs are dark. Thick black bands with white outlines stretch from throat to shoulder, where they end in triangular points.
The body ends in a brown tail. The coat hairs are long, especially on the tail, which makes the tail look larger than it actually is. A stiff mane stretches along its back. The bold pattern was thought to be disruptive camouflage, but a 2009 study suggests it is warning coloration. While adult males are slightly larger and more muscular than females, with wider heads and necks, visual sex determination can be difficult. The penis and testes are located internally between the rectum and urinary bladder in males, and females have a single pair of mammary glands near the armpits.
The giant anteater has broad ribs. Despite its specific name, it has five toes on each foot. Four toes on the front feet have claws, which are particularly elongated on the second and third digits. The giant anteater walks on its front knuckles, similar to the African apes, specifically gorillas and chimpanzees. Doing this allows the anteater to keep its claws out of the way while walking. The middle digits, which support most of its weight, are extended at the metacarpophalangeal joints and bent at the interphalangeal joints. Unlike the front feet, the hind feet have short claws on all five toes and walk plantigrade. As a "hook-and-pull" digger, the anteater's enlarged supraspinous fossa gives the teres major more leverage—increasing the front limbs' pulling power—and the triceps muscle helps power the flexion of the thickened third digit of the front feet.
The giant anteater has a low body temperature for a mammal, about 33°C , a few degrees lower than typical a mammalian temperature of 36–38°C . Xenarthrans in general tend to have lower metabolic rates than most other mammals, a trend thought to correlate with their dietary specializations and low mobility.
DistributionThe giant anteater is native to Central and South America. Its known range stretches from Honduras to northern Argentina, and fossil remains have been found as far north as northwestern Sonora, Mexico. It is largely absent from the Andes and has been extirpated in Uruguay. It may also be extirpated in Belize, Costa Rica and Guatemala.
StatusThe species is listed as Vulnerable by the IUCN, due to the number of regional extirpations, and under Appendix II by CITES, tightly restricting trade in specimens of the animal. Between 2000 and 2010, the total population declined by 30%. In 1994, some 340 anteaters died due to wildfires at Emas National Park in Brazil. The animal is particularly vulnerable to fires due to its slow movement and flammable coat.
BehaviorThe giant anteater may use multiple habitats. A 2007 study of anteaters in the Brazilian Pantanal found the animals generally forage in open areas and rest in forested areas, possibly because forests are warmer than grasslands on cold days and cooler on hot days. Anteaters can be either diurnal or nocturnal. A 2006 study in the Pantanal found those anteaters to be mostly nocturnal: they are most active during nighttime and early morning, and retire as the temperature rises. On colder days, anteaters start and end periods of activity earlier, shifting them into daylight hours, and may become diurnal. Diurnal anteaters have been observed at Serra da Canastra. Nocturnality in anteaters may be a response to human disturbances.
Giant anteaters typically rest in dense brush, but may use tall grass on cooler days. They carve a shallow cavity in the ground for resting. The animal sleeps curled up with its bushy tail folded over its body. The tail serves both to conserve body heat and as camouflage. One anteater was recorded sleeping with its tail stretched out on a sunny morning with an ambient temperature of 17°C ; possibly it was positioned this way to allow its body to absorb the sun's rays for warmth.
Giant anteaters are good swimmers and are capable of moving through wide rivers. They have been observed to bathe. They are also able to climb and have been recorded ascending both termite mounds and trees while foraging. One individual was observed holding onto a branch with its feet just touching the ground.
HabitatThe species can be found in a number of habitats including both tropical rainforests and xeric shrublands, provided enough prey is present to sustain it.
ReproductionGiant anteaters can mate throughout the year. During courtship, a male consorts with an estrous female, following and sniffing her. Male and female pairs are known to feed at the same insect nest. While mating, the female lies on her side as the male crouches over her. A couple may stay together for up to three days and mate several times during that period. Gestation lasts around 190 days and ends with the birth of a single pup, which typically weighs around 1.4 kg. Females give birth standing upright.
Pups are born with eyes closed and begin to open them after six days. The mother carries its dependent pup on its back. The pup's black and white band aligns with its mother's, camouflaging it. The young communicate with their mothers with sharp whistles and use their tongues during nursing. After three months, the pup begins to eat solid food and is fully weaned by ten months. The mother grooms her offspring during rest periods lasting up to an hour. Grooming peaks during the first three months and declines as the young reaches nine months of age, ending by ten months. The decline mirrors that of the weakening bond between mother and offspring; young anteaters usually become independent by nine or ten months. Anteaters are sexually mature in 2.5–4 yr.
FoodThe anteater has no teeth and is capable of very limited jaw movement. It relies on the rotation of the two halves of its lower jaw, held together by a ligament at the tip, to open and close its mouth. This is accomplished by its masticatory muscles, which are relatively underdeveloped. Jaw depression creates an oral opening large enough for the slender tongue to flick out. It is typically 60 cm long and is triangular posteriorly, rounded anteriorly, and ends in a small, rounded tip. The tongue is covered in backward-curving papillae and coated in thick, sticky saliva secreted from its enlarged salivary glands, which allows the anteater to collect insects with it.
The tube-like rostrum and small mouth opening restrict the tongue to protrusion-retraction movements. During feeding, the tongue moves in and out around 160 times per minute . These movements are powered by the unique musculature of the anteater's long, large and flexible hyoid apparatus. The animal relies on the orientation of its head for aim. When fully extended, the tongue can reach 45 cm ; longer than the length of the skull. The buccinators allow it to slide back in without losing attached food and tighten the mouth to prevent food from escaping as it protracts. When retracted, the tongue is held in the oropharynx by the hyoid muscles and the secondary palate, preventing it from blocking respiration. This retraction is aided by the long sternoglossus muscle, which is formed by the fusion of the sternohyoid and the hyoglossus, and does not attach to the hyoid. Thus, the tongue is directly anchored to the sternum.
Anteaters swallow at a much higher rate than most other mammals; when feeding they swallow almost continuously. Before being swallowed, insects are crushed against the palate. The anteater's stomach, similar to a bird's gizzard, has hardened folds and uses strong contractions to grind up the insects. The digestive process is assisted by small amounts of ingested sand and soil. The anteater cannot produce stomach acid of its own, but uses the formic acid of its prey for digestion.
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