What has a 24-inch tongue, no teeth, and eats 30,000 of his favorite treats each day? And who is clever enough not to be stung while procuring those tasty treats? And who isn’t able to stay warm very well, (because the favorite treats don’t have too much nutritional value) but has a nifty and distinctive tail that works as both camouflage and a handy blanket?
It’s the Giant Anteater, a lugubrious and seemingly affable resident of Central and South America, and those preferred treats are – you guessed it – ants, the kind with a nasty bite. The Giant Anteater may look like some strange creature imagined by Dr. Seuss, but don’t be fooled. These huge creatures can grow up to 8 feet (including tails) and weigh up to 140 pounds – and though they may seem slow and low energy, they are perfectly adapted to their environment. And that 2-foot tongue is anything but slow! It can flick up to 150 times per minute, and is equipped with special sticky saliva as well has interesting little spines which point backwards. In other words, Giant Anteaters are models of efficiency when it comes to eating ants, and termites too.
And though 30,000 of anything might sound a little gluttonous, Giant Anteaters are very clever and discriminating hunters. Though they have limited eyesight, they more than compensate for this with a sense of smell 40 times more acute than our own. This means that they can identify a particular species of ant or termite before they go to the trouble of tearing open a mound. And once they access their tiny, frantic prey, they do not gorge, because doing so could destroy the particular mound for future feeding. Besides, if they linger, they could get bitten. They snatch up the ants or termites with alacrity, then squish them on the roof of their mouths, then dispatching them to their unusually muscular stomachs for further pulverization. Research indicates that a given Giant Anteater will only extract about 140 ants from a given mound per day, so you can imagine how many stops he or she must make to ingest tens of thousands of them.
But back to those termite or ant mounds – how exactly does the Giant Anteater get into them? One of the most interesting adaptations these creatures enjoy has to do with their claws and their shuffling gait. Giant Anteaters have five claws on each foot, but the middle three of these on the forefeet can be up to 4 inches long and quite formidable. In order to keep them in prime “mound infiltration” condition, the Anteater walks on his knuckles with all four feet, nose pointed to the ground. But when he wants to get into a mound, the strong front legs are more than up to a quick ingress. His long nose (there really isn’t a mouth per se) allows him to quickly reach the center of the mound where the most ants or termites will be, and once the incredibly speedy tongue begins flicking, 140 of the mound’s residents are consumed in record time. He will then follow his nose to his next dining destination.
They are mostly solitary, and mostly slow and peaceable. However, when the situation calls for it, Giant Anteaters can rear up on their back legs to threaten or defend against predators, like pumas and jaguars. If necessary, they can also “gallop” at about 30 miles per hour. They can climb and swim as well, using that amazing snout as a snorkel! But these creatures far prefer to eat and sleep, curled up securely under their bushy tails. Emerging evidence describes them as diurnal, but they are still adapting, even though they’ve been on earth for about 25 million years. In response to weather conditions, or in areas of close proximity to humans, they simply become nocturnal.
Unfortunately, that proximity to humans is becoming a greater problem for them. As human populations and their agriculture expand, the Giant Anteaters’ habitat is shrinking, at the same time their interactions with humans are increasing. The Anteaters and Highways Project in the Cerrado region of Brazil is researching the Anteaters’ travels in order to determine why so many of them are killed in highway accidents. Sugar cane farming is also having a huge impact on the Giant Anteater; growers set fire to their fields in order to make the sugar cane easier to cut; Anteaters sometimes suffer significant burns through this process, but their habitats and insect diets are also affected.
Because the Giant Anteater breeds only once annually, has only one offspring per successful breeding, and also requires a long gestation period, around 190 days, the species cannot weather much reduction from human sources like cane fields or autos. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature lists the Giant Anteater as vulnerable, which estimates that the current population, about 5000 in the wild, will be reduced by approximately 20% in the next decade. Giant Anteaters and the insect populations they control are crucial to the ecosystems in countries where they reside, so it’s especially important that reputable zoos, such as the Reid Park Zoo, contribute to their breeding in human care. And because these amazing creatures can be very tricky to study in the wild, those living in zoo environments are increasingly important to research in the effort to save the species.
The Giant Anteaters, along with countless other animals in our Zoo, and especially the vulnerable and endangered species coming to the Reid Park Zoo expansion, need more of us to understand their plight in the wild. By learning about them and caring about them, maybe we can help turn around that 20% reduction in the next ten years!