Interesting Giant Anteater facts

October 10, 2010 | In: Animal facts for kids

CLASS: Mammalia
ORDER: Edentata
FAMILY: Myrmecophagidae
GENUS & SPECIES: Myrmecophaga tridactyla

Edentata means having (-ata) no (e-) teeth (-dent-). The family Myrmecophagidae is the only family without them, and, actually, the giant anteater is the only one without them. The two other Myrmecophagids have a few rudimentary teeth. The teeth of those edentates that have teeth are without enamel. These teeth grow continually. Myrmeco- means “ant” and phagus means “eater” (both Greek), even though their primary diet is termites, not ants. The species name means three (tri-) fingers (dactyls).

The three other anteater species in the family are the semi-arboreal Tamandua and the completely arboreal Silky Anteater. They are similar in appearance, each with a shorter face. The tamandua is less than half the size of the giant, and the silky is the size of a squirrel.

South to Uruguay and northwestern Argentina, east to the Andes and north into southern Mexico, foraging the grasslands, open dry, deciduous and rain forests.

Diverged from insectivores during the Cretaceous (100 mya) in South America and were already greatly diversified by the end of the Age of Dinosaurs (the beginning of the Age of Mammals) 65 mya.

Giant Ground Sloths made it to North America across the Land Bridge that formed between North and South America (Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama) with the uplifting of Volcanic islands.

Armadillos and the extinct glyptodonts (well-armored armadillo-like sloths with spiny tail processes) followed during the Ice Age.

Tree sloths and anteaters got no farther than Central America, probably stopped by cool weather and the changing forests. Several species of Giant Sloths are represented in the fossil record found at the Fairmead Dig in the Madera County Land Fill.

Length: 100-300 cm plus 65-90 cm tail (6-8 feet: skull = 18″ and tail = 24″)
Weight: 30-35 kg. (about 70 pounds)

With the quite tubular muzzle elongated to house the extremely long tongue, the profile of anteaters is quite recognizable. The terrestrial giant anteater has a stiff, heavy brush tail. The hair, generally, is straw-like bristles, with those on the back and tail being quite long.

Coloration is gray-brown, with the bristly crest and arm hair finely banded. There is a black, or dark mark across the chest, up over the shoulder and along the back.

Even though all five toes are present on the forearm, the first and fifth are greatly reduced and are not visible. Two of the front toes are very large and heavily clawed, the third toe twice as long as the second. All of the toes are held sideways, the animal walking on its knuckles and the side of its fist.

Ant species without heavy jaws or chemical defenses, like carpenter ants, and worker termites, some 30,000 per day.

All anteaters use the same fear-defense posture. They rear onto the hind legs (giants use their stiff tails as a tripod leg, tamanduas and silkies support with their prehensile tails) and brandish extended claws. The arms are extremely powerful and animals, including humans, caught in their grip, succumb. The claws, used to rip open concrete-hard termite and ant mounds, can cause tremendous damage.

Anteaters seldom spend more than a couple of minutes feeding at any one nest. Only a few thousand insects are removed at one feeding and then the nest is abandoned to repairs. The anteaters circulate around their territories, feeding lightly here and there, never destroying any one nest and, therefore, never eliminating any of their food base. Termites and ants recover losses very rapidly.

Anteaters, like sloths, have a very slow metabolism, maintaining a low body temperature and sleeping a large portion of the day. Giant anteaters dig a depression and curl up in it, covering themselves with their brush tail. Excellent hearing awakens them at the slightest sound.

Anteaters mark territory with anal gland secretions. The tamandua’s scent is so strong that the natives have nick-named it “stinker of the forest.” The sense of smell is important to all anteaters, the species of ants and termites are identified by smell before the nest is ripped open.

The mouth of anteaters is very small, barely big enough to pass a pencil, but the tongue is very long, protrusible to 24 inches. It is heavily coated with thick, sticky saliva when it is in use. The tongue has backward-pointing papillae that can be stiffened into spines. It is attached, muscularly, to the sternum and can be flicked in and out at the incredible rate of 150 or more times a minute. Insects are mashed against the hard pallet. Most mastication occurs in the gizzard-like stomach, aided by ingested pebbles.

The color pattern breaks up the outline and adds to the camouflage. Interestingly, the position that the young anteater takes, while riding on the mother’s back, causes the line on the juvenile to line up with the line on the mother, making the youngster virtually invisible.

The forearms are very powerful and the hands are modified to provide tremendous leverage power. The digits and claws are heavy, and are constructed so that the huge claws may be folded against the palm when not in use.

Normally solitary, courtship is not documented in the wild. Breeding takes place in the fall (March to May in the southern hemisphere), probably during a brief encounter. Gestation is about 190 days, the female delivers while standing upright, propped by the tail.

The newborn climbs through the fur onto the mother’s back and she then licks it clean. Usually there is only one precocious youngster, which is suckled for about six months. The youngster usually stays with the mother until nearly fully grown, about two years.

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