The Giant Anteater can be found in diverse habitats from grasslands to rainforests in Central and South America, from Nicaragua to Northern Argentina.
Anteaters have a long tube-like snout with a keen sense of smell.
Giant Anteaters use their sharp claws to break open ant and termite mounds.
The National Zoo's male and female Giant Anteaters enjoy a meal.
Animal of the month: Giant Anteater — famous for its 0.6 m long tongue!
The Giant Anteater (Myrmecophaga tridactyla) has a ravenous appetite for ants, termites and soft bodied grubs.
There are four species of anteaters: Giant Anteater, Silky Anteater, Southern Tamandua and Northern Tamandua. The NZG has two adult Giant Anteaters, the largest of the species, that can grow to a total length of between 1.8m to 2.4m.
Anteaters or Antbear, as they are sometimes known are ground dwelling mammals and fall under the Suborder of Vermilingua, which means 'worm tongue'. Though not directly related to the Armadillo, anteaters fall under the scientific classification of the Superorder of Xenarthra, which also contains the Cingulata group of the armadillos. They are indirectly related to the sloth as they fall under the Order, Pilosa.
The anteater is often mistakenly thought to be related to the Pangolin and the African Aardvark, as they share similar features and have all evolved powerful digging forearms, long tongues, tube-like snouts without any teeth, which they use to break termite mounds for food.
All species of anteaters have a long thin head with an elongated snout. They have a tube-shaped mouth that has no teeth — just lips and a long tongue that can extend to 60cm, with a width of 12.5mm, which is covered in sticky saliva to trap its prey. Anteaters can extend and withdraw their tongues up to 150 times a minute. It is one of the few mammals that do not have teeth when mature.
The anteater's fur has a stiff, straw-like texture that is predominantly a grey/brown colour with a distinctive black and white band, crossing its chest and shoulder. They have long fur with a large bushy tail; their dense fur protects them from insects attacking them. Young anteaters have soft fur. Anteaters have large curved fore-claws which are used to break open termite and ant mounds as well as for defence.
When they walk they flex and turn their fingers inwards, to keep their claws from piercing them and touching the ground, thus they appear as if they are walking on their knuckles.
The Giant Anteater is nocturnal in the wild, but if near human settlements, it is diurnal with a keen sense of smell, close to 40 times more sensitive than that of humans, but it does have poor eyesight and hearing. Anteaters choose to sleep in abandoned burrows and hollows found in the wild. They sleep curled with their body covered by their long bushy tails. Interestingly enough, although known as a land dweller they are known to be strong swimmers.
Giant Anteaters breed once every nine months with their breeding season duration determined by the region in which they live. Females give birth standing up, where a single offspring will be delivered after a gestation of 190 days. The baby is born fully coated in soft fur and marked. It immediately climbs onto its mother's back, where it will stay until she falls pregnant again, generally one year.
Communication between Giant Anteaters is minimal and only sometimes includes snorts, hisses and sniffs. When threatened it will stand up on its hind legs, using its tail for balance, and strike with its claws or 'hugs' its attacker. They are known to live beyond 20 years old in the wild and 25 years in captivity and can weigh up to 65kg when fully grown.
Habitat loss and indiscriminate hunting has resulted in this species' vulnerability. They are now classified on the 'near threatened' Red List by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) has defined this species as not threatened to extinction, but trade and overuse need to be controlled.
At the National Zoo
The NZG has two Giant Anteaters, a male and a female. They are both from Brazil and have lived happily at the zoo for nearly eight years, with an estimated age of nine years. They are best viewed on a night tour. Please note that night tour bookings are essential.
Claire Fordred, Intern, NZG
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