Giant Anteater

Giant Anteater

[ Myrmecophaga tridactyla ]

Quick Facts

BODY LENGTH: 3 to 4 feet
TAIL LENGTH: 2 to 3 feet
WEIGHT:

50 to 86 pounds 

WILD DIET: ants and termites
ZOO DIET: canned feline diet, ground dog chow, insects, and oranges
DISTRIBUTION: Southern Mexico, Central America, the northern two-thirds of South America except the Andes; they are vulnerable to extinction because of habitat reduction.
HABITAT: grasslands, swamps, and tropical forests

 

Hosehead

What is that?
The giant anteater of South America looks like no other animal. At 80 pounds and more than seven feet long, it dwarfs all other anteater species. Its stiff tail sticks almost straight back, is covered in long, coarse hair, and looks like a fan. The tail connects to an arched back with a ridge of hair on top. A black and white stripe adorns the shoulder and stands out from a background coloration of gray. The anteater’s legs are thick and powerful. But the most distinctive feature is their remarkable tubular head.

Specialized equipment for a specialized diet
The giant anteater’s toothless, foot-long head actually harbors a tongue 24 inches in length! The tongue is a wonder of evolutionary design, with little spines that point backwards, and extra-sticky saliva. The flicking tongue can extend and retract at the incredible rate of 150 times per minute!

An ant’s worst nightmare…
…and a termite’s as well. With their special insect-catching tongue, anteaters are such efficient feeders that they can literally eat thousands of ants or termites in a day. When they find a nest, they dig a hole and then start lapping up insects as workers and soldiers emerge to defend the nest. Anteaters are picky eaters though, avoiding the soldiers, which have large jaws (for an ant, that is!) and can deliver a nasty bite.

Giant anteaters don’t eat their fill from a single ant or termite nest. Instead, they make the rounds from nest to nest. The surprising thing is while they‘re eating, giant anteaters don’t really do great damage to a nest because they feed from each for just a short time. Then they move on to another. And another. By leaving enough ants in each nest, the colony can keep reproducing, providing an anteater with an almost constant source of food that they can return to again and again.


Giant claws

Giant anteaters have curved claws four inches in length. They use them to raid insect nests, but they really come in handy for defense against pumas and jaguars. When approached by one of these predators, giant anteaters rear up on their hind legs, claws slashing. Combined with powerful arms and a crushing embrace, the claws give the anteater a formidable defense.

Giant anteater at Brookfield Zoo
Tropic World: South America is home to a giant anteater. Watch for movement behind rocks and the trunks of trees at the rear of the exhibit.

Get Involved

Conservation Fund of the Chicago Zoological Society