Animal Moments

Dig the Giant Anteater!


The giant anteater (Myrmecophaga tridactyla) belongs to the order Pilosa (formerly
called Edentates, meaning "without teeth") along with the sloths and other anteaters.
Only the anteaters are truly toothless.


The giant anteater has an extraordinary appearance, with a long tapering snout, tiny
mouth, strikingly colored fore legs, and a huge bushy tail which takes up half the animalís


The giant anteaterís long sticky tongue is specialized for eating ants. Anchored on the
breast bone, two feet long, half an inch wide, and covered with spines and sticky mucous,
the tongue can move in and out of the mouth up to 150 times per minute as the animal feeds.
With each movement, the tongue picks up ants and draws them into the mouth, where
specialized structures help to mash up the insects. The digestion is aided by an unusually
powerful stomach and a resistance to formic acid.


Another specialization for ant-eating are the huge curved claws, which the anteater
uses to break open ant hills and logs and to dig into the ground. I have watched an anteater
at the zoo digging into the earth with such ease that the dirt might as well be chocolate cake.

(You can see the animal's large front claws in the picture below.)



Typically, an anteater will feed for only a minute or two at any particular ant nest. Then it
will seek another. This helps to preserve its food source and also allows the anteater
to move on before the soldier ants arrive to protect the exposed nest.


The size of the claws means that the anteater must walk on the backs of its wrists with
the claws turned inward. I have read that the anteaterís gait is ďshuffling,Ē but I see a
certain grace in the animalís movements.


The giant anteater has a very keen sense of smell, allowing it to detect its preferred prey,
not just any ants but those with smaller jaws. Hearing and vision are said not to be too good.
Itís fascinating to watch an anteater nosing around its habitat, with its long thin snout moving
busily over every surface it encounters. It reminds me a bit of a vacuum cleaner.


Giant anteaters are also unusual in having the lowest body temperature of any mammal:
about 91 degrees F. They also have a fairly slow metabolism and relatively poor
thermoregulation. The animal spends the night curled up in an adventitious hollow
with its bushy tail for a blanket.


In addition to ants, giant anteaters can also eat soft fruits by picking them up with
their lips. I have often prepared an enrichment item for our zooís anteaters
consisting of small pieces of orange and ripe avocado placed in a paper towel
tube. The anteater enjoys tearing the tube apart to get at his snack.