Anteaters: Myrmecophagidae

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ANTEATERS: Myrmecophagidae

GIANT ANTEATER (Myrmecophaga tridactyla): SPECIES ACCOUNTS


The anteater has a long snout, the part of the face that includes the nose, mouth, and jaw. While the anteater is toothless, it has a long tongue that it uses to catch the ants that make up the major part of its diet. The anteater uses its snout and claws to reach into ant nests. Long hair on the anteater's body is a protection against bites from the ants that they hunt and eat.

The anteater family includes three genera (JEN-uh-rah) and four species. A genus (JEE-nus), the singular of genera, is a group of animals with similar characteristics. Size is the primary difference in each anteater genus, and that difference is represented in the animals' common names.

From head to tail, the giant anteater measures a total of 110 inches (280 centimeters), and weighs from 48 to 88 pounds (22 to 39 kilograms).

Next in size are the tamanduas (tuh-MAN-duh-wahz), which are also known as the "lesser anteaters." Tamandua translates to "ant catcher" in Portuguese. The northern tamandua is brown with black fur on its back, and the southern tamandua's fur color ranges from blond to brown.

The silky anteater is also called the pygmy anteater. The maximum head-to-tail length is 21 inches (52 centimeters). Weight ranges from 6 to 13 ounces (175 to 357 grams).

The silky anteater and tamandua have prehensile tails that they use to grab and hold onto objects like trees. Both species have soft, silky hair in contrast to the coarse (rough) fur of the giant anteater.


Anteaters live in Central and South America, in Belize, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, El Salvador, French Guiana, Guatemala, Guyana, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, Peru, Suriname, and Venezuela.


Silky anteaters live in trees in rainforests, areas where abundant rainfall produces heavy growth. They also inhabit grassland, areas where there are few trees. Giant anteaters live on the ground and are found mainly on grassland. They also live in wetlands, where the land is flat and wet. They live in moist forests and may live near rainforests. Tamandua live in trees or on the ground. They are found in rainforests, grassland, and dry forests.


A giant anteater eats about 30,000 ants each day. The tamandua eat about 9,000 in a day, and the silky anteater can eat 5,000 in one day. The giant anteater and tamandua also consume termites.


All anteaters are believed to be solitary, only meeting up to breed. They are thought to be polygynous (puh-LIH-juh-nus), meaning males mate with more than one female. After giant anteaters mate, the male leaves, but the male silky anteater helps to feed its young while it's in the nest. The gestation period, the amount of time before the female gives birth, is 120 to 150 days for silky anteaters and tamandua. The giant anteater gives birth after about 190 days.

Female anteaters usually give birth to one young. The female's claws are so sharp that she cannot touch her cub. It climbs onto her back and lives there for six to nine months.

Silky anteaters are nocturnal, meaning that they are active at night. The other anteaters are active at night and during the day.


Giant anteaters use their sense of smell to find underground ant nests or termite mounds that can be up to 12 feet (4 meters) above ground. After using their claws to break into the mounds, anteaters use their long tongues to scoop up the insects. They can flick their tongues 150 times a minute into nests.

Anteaters use their claws to protect themselves against predators including hawks, mountain lions, and people.


People sometimes keep anteaters to eliminate ants and termites from their homes, as well as keeping them as pets. In addition, people kill giant anteaters and eat their meat. People kill tamandua to make rope out of the tendon, a cord-like tissue that attaches muscle to bone, in the tail.


Giant anteaters are Vulnerable, facing a high risk of extinction in the wild, according to the World Conservation Union (IUCN). Threats to giant anteaters' survival include the loss of habitat, and lack of food as trees are cut down and insect nests are destroyed. Habitat loss could threaten other anteaters in the future.


Physical characteristics: The hair of silky anteaters is soft like silk. Their fur is gray or gold with a brown stripe on the back. Silky anteaters are 12 to 21 inches (32 to 52 centimeters) long. They have pink noses, tube-shaped muzzles, and long tongues.

These animals are also called two-toed anteaters because the anteaters have two toes on each of their front feet. Each toe has a long, curved claw. There is a smaller claw on each of the four toes on the back feet.

Tail length ranges from 6 to 12 inches (16 to 30 centimeters). Anteaters use their prehensile tails to hold on as they move through trees.

Geographic range: Silky anteaters live in Mexico, Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, Colombia, Venezuela, Guyana, Suriname, French Guiana, Brazil, Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Trinidad and Tobago.

Habitat: Silky anteaters spend most of their lives in trees, in rainforests where deciduous trees undergo seasonal changes. The anteaters live mainly in kapok (KAY-pock) trees, where pods (dry seed vessels) are fluffy and gold and silver. The anteaters resemble the pods in appearance, helping the animals to hide from predators.

Diet: Silky anteaters eat ants off of leaves and from the insides of tree nests.

Behavior and reproduction: Silky anteaters are nocturnal. After they mate, the female gives birth to one young in 120 to 150 days. She keeps the cub in a nest made of leaves in a hole in a tree trunk. Both parents raise the cub, feeding it and carrying it on their backs.

Silky anteaters are hunted by birds like the harpy eagle and hawk eagle. While anteaters strike out with their claws at predators, their best defense is their appearance, since they blend in with kapok pods.

Silky anteaters and people: Silky anteaters are sometimes hunted by people as a source of meat.

Conservation status: The silky anteater is not a threatened animal. ∎

GIANT ANTEATER (Myrmecophaga tridactyla): SPECIES ACCOUNTS

Physical characteristics: Giant anteaters range in length from 5 feet, 7 inches to 9.1 feet (174 to 280 centimeters). That length includes tails, which are from 25 to 35 inches (64 to 90 centimeters) long. Tail fur is about 16 inches (40.6 centimeters) long.

The anteater's long fur is gray with bands of black and white. The animals have tiny heads, and small eyes and ears. Although their vision is poor, their sense of smell is forty times stronger than that of humans. Giant anteaters have long tube-shaped snouts that they use to reach into underground ant nests. Their tongues look like worms and can extend 2 feet (0.6 meters) into nests.

Anteaters' claws are 4 to 6 inches (10 to 15 centimeters) long. Although useful for digging for food, the claws are so long that anteaters have to walk on the side of their feet.

Geographic range: Giant anteaters live in Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras, Costa Rica, Panama, Paraguay, Uruguay, Colombia, Venezuela, Guyana, Suriname, French Guiana, Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia.

Habitat: The giant anteater lives on the ground in nearly treeless grasslands and in forests. They also range in wetland swamps.

Diet: Giant anteaters eat ants and termites. They lick wet plants to get water.

Behavior and reproduction: Giant anteaters are usually active during the day. However, they become nocturnal when people are around. They do not climb trees, but are talented swimmers.

Anteaters are solitary unless breeding or raising young. After mating, the male leaves and the female gives birth after 190 days to one cub. Very rarely, twins are born. The cub rides on the mother's back for up to nine months.

Anteaters use their claws to fight predators like jaguars.

Giant anteaters and people: People hunt giant anteaters and kill them for their meat and skin. Giant anteaters may be trapped to keep as pets.

Conservation status: Giant anteaters are Vulnerable, facing a high risk of extinction in the wild. Threats to their survival include loss of habitat as land is developed, in addition, to being hunted and killed by people. ∎



Attenborough, David. The Life of Mammals. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002.

Dollar, Sam. Anteaters. New York: Raintree Steck-Vaughn Publishers, 2001.

Web sites:

Animal Diversity Web. (accessed on June 21, 2004).