Mini Spotlight: Southern Tamandua

Let’s celebrate a relatively unknown, adorable, and appealing animal that nobody wants for a pet!    Because the Southern Tamandua truly defies description, please just click here to see some images.     How about that winsome face?   How about that handsome vest?  How about that little snout with the same circumference as a pencil?    Granted, the posture is a little odd, but really these creatures are built for life in the trees, which is why most people have never seen one.  

It’s an anteater, but….

The Southern Tamandua  (pronounced “ta –man-doo-wah”) is also called the Lesser Anteater, and they share many habits and qualities with their much larger relatives, the Giant Anteaters.  For example, both love to eat ants and termites (though tamanduas only eat about 9,000 per day, not 30,000 like their giant cousins), they have amazing sticky, barbed tongues and specialized digestion to eat those little arthropods,  they have formidable claws on their front feet, and both varieties of anteater have multi-purpose tails.   Both are also found in tropical and subtropical areas of South America.   

The most striking difference between a  Southern Tamandua and a Giant Anteater is size:   the tamandua can grow to about 2.9 feet in length and only weighs up to 18 pounds or so, while Giant Anteaters can grow up to 8 feet and 150 pounds.  Like other anteaters, tamanduas walk on their wrists with the claws facing inward, so as not to impede locomotion or unintentionally stab something.  And for both creatures, the claws’ main function is to dig into ant or termite mounds or into tree bark in search of food.

 The tails of these two relatives are also distinct.   When you picture an anteater, you probably think of a bushy tail that can be used for balance, to wrap around as a blanket, and as an important part of camouflage.    The tamanduas’ tails are really different – they are prehensile and play a big role in helping them climb and stabilizing their positions in trees.  They are covered with short fur on top, but none on the tips or underneath.  They are also used for balance on the ground,  especially when a tamandua needs to wave her frightening, 16-inch center front claws at a predator.    The tamandua is pretty ungainly on the ground, so when confronted by an enemy, running away is not an option, although a quick escape up into the trees might do the trick.  But they do have….

A secret Weapon!

Move over, skunks!   One of the tamanduas’ best defenses against predators like jaguars, margays, and cougars can deter them from quite a distance – a distinctive and distinctively foul odor!   When feeling threatened, or marking territory, these solitary creatures can use their specially-equipped anal glands to emit this most unforgettable aroma, reminding all comers that approaching them is not a pleasant experience.   After all, tamanduas just want to be left alone to forage and rest about 8 hours a day, mostly up in the trees, and to sleep the rest of the time.  Those 9,000 ants don’t provide energy to do much else.    Most tamanduas are nocturnal, maybe because they are often surrounded by swarms of flies and mosquitos during the day (could it be due to the secret weapon?) and prefer to forage under better circumstances at night.

Human/Tamandua Interaction

Well, there’s not much!   In the Amazon, some indigenous people sometimes bring tamanduas to their dwellings in order to control ants and termites.   And they are sometimes hunted for the tendons in their tails, which are used to make rope.  Luckily, the IUCN categorizes them as being of least concern – they are not in danger due to the illegal pet trade, perhaps because they’re not often seen up in the trees, or even in zoos.   

However, many U.S. zoos do have tamanduas, but usually behind the scenes.   This is the case at the Reid Park Zoo, where Southern Tamanduas (they have 3 at present) are considered Ambassador Animals, and occasionally make an appearance on the grounds and participate in educational programs in the community.    If you’re lucky you may get to see one – but whatever you do, don’t get too close or startle him (you do not want to experience the secret weapon)!    In fact, the Reid Park Zoo is especially good at tamandua care and husbandry – so far, they have been able to send 7 offspring to other zoos in the U.S., and right now one youngster is still living with his mother in Tucson!

(The Reid Park Zoo Expansion website is not produced by the Zoo! We’re a group of concerned Tucsonans who want you to know about the current and future animals that our Zoo is working to save, and the value in interacting with nature)

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