The Giant Anteater

Genus: Myrmecophaga, Scientific Name: Myrmecophaga Tridactyla

Giant Anteaters are mammals classified as sloths. Found in parts of Central and South America, they have physical traits and behaviors that make them unique from other creatures in the animal kingdom. Long adapted noses and claws of four inches makes them formidable ant and termite hunters. Anteaters are insectivores, so they feed primarily on insects and are believed to have been doing so for 2.5 million years.

The giant mammals are found throughout Central America, from Honduras to Bolivia in South America. They tend to live in forests, savannas, and open grasslands. In many places in Central America, their populations are low and fairly spread out.

There are Four Species of Anteater

  • The northern tamandua
  • The southern tamandua
  • The silky anteater, or pygmy anteater
  • The giant anteater, sometimes called the ant bear. Today, we’re going to cover this one.

Giant anteaters are, as their name would suggest, the largest of all the species of anteaters. Their impressive size can be intimidating to humans if they every bump into the giants, although they are almost always harmless (unless you’re an ant!). Giant anteaters have very powerful claws, which are so large that they often appear to be walking on their wrists. The truth is they walk on knuckles with their long claws folded underneath padded paws. Once they’ve found a nest, they will use these massive claws to quickly dig through the ground and tear it open.

The Giant Anteater
The Giant Anteater

This species of anteater can reach up to 2 meters (7 feet) in length, and can weigh up to 55 kilograms. If they stand on their hind legs, they are taller than a grown man. An elephantine nose can grow to 18 inches long and though it has poor eyes sight, this itself doesn’t affect the anteater’s keen hunting skills.

The most distinctive tool of the anteater is its long tongue. This special feature makes the anteater unique on the plains and wetlands of Central America. Attached to the sternum, the elongated tongue rolls up to the back of the cranium. When eating, the well adapted tool will unroll like a whip stretching to almost two times the length of the entire pointed head.

Interesting Prey, Interesting Predator

On the Cerrado savannahs of south America, thousands of mounds stand like pointed, clay chimneys: the homes of millions of termites. During the wet season, they are also home to glowing larvae of headlight beetles, that turn the numerous mounds into luminous light shows. It is here, the giant anteater finds a smorgasbord of food offerings.

The giant anteater in particular, like their African relatives, pangolins can consume thousands of insects in one sitting— sometimes as many as 30,000 a day, which are needed to sustain their large sizes.

Giant anteaters have no teeth. Instead, their sticky tongues deliver food directly down their throats, no chewing required. Like birds, they will often intentionally swallow gravel and small pebbles which helps crush the contents of their stomachs for better digestion.

Giant Anteaters Eat Over 25000 Termites a Day
Giant Anteaters Eat Over 25000 Termites a Day

The giant anteater will locate a mound and begin to scrape away hard earth with its sharp claws. When an opening or tunnel has been dug out, the giant mammal will deploy its two foot tongue. Laden with sticky saliva the tongue whips through tunnels sticking to thousands of insects. Lashing remarkably fast, sometimes going in and out as many as 150 times a minute, within three minutes, the attack is over, and the giant anteater moves on to find other unfortunate termites.

After the anteater invasion, the remnants of the colony can begin to rebuild their nest— at least until the next anteater comes along. Attacking speedily before sustaining too many bites is very important for the edentate (no teeth) creatures, and that’s why their attacks are so short. Ants and termites will bite back, en masse, though anteaters have thick skin and matted long fur to help protect against the defending colonies.

Short spanned attacks allowing some insects to survive, so they can rebuild their colonies, benefits the future of ant and termite colonies and thus the anteater, itself. Some scientists speculate, if anteaters were immune to the bites, they could easily wipe out entire nests.

Fantastic Facts About Giant Anteaters

  • The anteater’s nose is so sensitive it can decipher between different species of ants when searching mounds.
  • Walking on their knuckles and with the claws tucked away keeps the claws sharp for defending themselves and for burrowing into anthills.
  • Anteaters will eat fruit occasionally.

Habits and Breeding

Giant anteaters live their entire lives on the ground, and are diurnal, meaning they are active during the day and sleep at night. They spend most of their waking hours wandering around and sniffing out food sources or taking long baths in muddy pools.

Giant Anteater With Pup
Giant Anteater With Pup

Giant anteaters prefer to live alone, with just one anteater living in a certain range of territory. Marking their space using scent marks and claw scratches, is a message for others know to stay away. If two anteaters do meet, it usually is an uneventful occurrence and they often move swiftly in separate directions. The only exception is during the mating season. At this time, giant anteaters will seek out a female. Usually, the male will only stay with the female for a few days to a week, but he almost never helps to raise the pup.

Female anteaters give birth to one pup at a time. She will care for the baby for about six months. Since she can’t carry it in her mouth or arms, the baby will latch onto her back when it’s time to move around. Pups are known to be playful and will often wrestle among each other and with the mother. Once the pup is grown, it will go out to the wide savannah and find its own home.


Giant anteaters can even fend off animals like pumas and jaguars most of the time. They stand up on their hind feet arms spread to appear large when feeling threatened. Anteaters are known to make up 5% of the diet of jaguars, though often jaguars will sneak up to them to be inquisitive rather than to attack.

Playful and inquisitive when not hunting, this ancient animal also adapts well to zoo life when given the right spacious conditions and mental stimulus.

ICUN Conservation Status: Vulnerable

Habitat loss due to fires, hunting for food or as pests, and being struck by cars are all threats to the currently decreasing populations of giant anteaters. Some of its habitats are now protected areas, so efforts are being made to help it survive in the wild.

A Giant Anteater in captivity

Q & A

What order does the giant anteater belong to?

The giant anteater belongs to the pilosa order.

Do giant anteaters live in Africa?

The giant anteater only loves in south and central America.

When were giant anteaters first thought to live?

Fossils of the giant anteater record animals in the late Pleistocene and early Holocene periods.

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