status: Vulnerable, IUCN
Description and biology
Coarse, shaggy gray hair covers the giant anteater's long, narrow body. A black and silver-white stripe extends across its shoulders and down its back. The giant anteater's neck and head taper to its distinctive long, cylindrical snout. The animal's eyes and ears are small. Its saliva-coated tongue, used to pluck prey from nests, can extend almost 24 inches (61 centimeters). Its powerful front legs and claws allow the animal to break into termite and ant colonies easily, and also provide a means of defense against predators such as pumas and jaguars. An average giant anteater measures 40 to 50 inches (101 to 127 centimeters) from its head to the end of its body and weighs between 40 and 85 pounds (18 and 38 kilograms). Its shaggy tail can reach from 26 to 35 inches (66 to 89 centimeters) long.
The giant anteater's home range may extend from 1 to 9.6 square miles (2.6 to 24.9 square kilometers). A single giant anteater exists by itself in the wild and comes in contact with other giant anteaters only to mate. A female giant anteater gives birth to a single infant after a 190-day gestation (pregnancy) period. The infant, which rides on the mother's back and nurses for the first six weeks, stays with the mother for more than a year.
Habitat and current distribution
Although the habitat of giant anteaters extends from Guatemala in Central America to Uruguay in South America, scientists believe these animals are almost extinct over much of this great range. The primary reason is habitat destruction, especially of tropical rain forests.
History and conservation measures
Giant anteaters are killed for their meat, for their claws and tails (which are highly prized), and because people wrongly believe they attack dogs, cattle, and humans. The greatest threat to these animals, however, is fire. During dry seasons, large fires sweep through much of central South America. Farmers also set forest fires in order to increase grazing land for their livestock—what is called slash-and-burn agriculture. While almost all other animals escape these fires by running or flying, giant anteaters usually do not. They are slow-moving and their long hair burns easily.
Giant anteaters are protected from hunters in a number of national parks and nature reserves throughout their vast habitat. In Brazil alone, ten parks and three reserves provide safe haven for the animals. Nonetheless, natural and man-made fires recognize no boundaries, so many giant anteaters have burned to death in protected areas.