FROM ZOO TO YOU: Giant anteaters among world’s unique animals

By Emily Sexson

With last Sunday being Mother’s Day, I wanted to continue to honor my mother this week by sharing information about her favorite animal at the Lee Richardson Zoo. My mom loves this animal so much that her eyes tear up, and she smiles from ear to ear every time she sees him. With his elongated snout, long claws, and remarkable tail, Sniffy, the giant anteater, is number one in my mom’s eyes. Giant anteaters are insectivorous mammals native to Central and South America. You can see Sniffy and his neighbors, the rhea, and maned wolf, in the South American Pampas portion of the zoo.

Giant anteaters are one of four living species of mammal that belong to the suborder Vermilingua, which means “worm tongue”. In addition to the giant anteater, this group includes the silky anteater, the southern tamandua, and the northern tamandua. Together with sloths (which just so happen to be my favorite animal), they form the order Pilosa. You can probably guess how the giant anteater got its name. They are the largest of their family, reaching over seven feet in length, with males weighing up to 110 pounds. As insectivores, they survive by eating only insects, they use their long sticky “worm” tongue to collect ants and termites.

Their tongue is typically 24 inches long and does most of the work during feeding time. The giant anteater has no teeth and very limited jaw movement. Due to their anatomy, their tongue can only move in and out with very little side movement. They can protrude and retract their tongue nearly three times per second! This adaptation allows them to collect their prey quickly and efficiently. Once on the tongue, the anteater brings the insects into its mouth and crushes them against its palate. As they feed, they collect small amounts of sand or soil, which aids in their digestive process. A giant anteater’s stomach does not secrete digestive acid itself but relies on the formic acid of its prey for digestion.

Giant anteaters consume up to 30,000 insects a day. To reach enough insects, the anteater will use its long and powerful foreclaws to dig into insect nests or rip apart termite mounds. Studies show that anteaters typically average about one minute at each insect nest but will visit over 200 nests a day. In addition to helping them acquire enough food for the day, an anteater’s foreclaws are its primary form of defense. The giant anteater’s primary predators are pumas, jaguars, and humans. Typically, anteaters are shy and evasive; they will flee from danger when possible. However, when cornered by a predator, they rear up on their hind legs and slash out with their four-inch-long claws.

Giant anteaters are the most terrestrial of the anteater species. They spend most of their life on the ground, while others have adapted to an arboreal life (above the ground in trees). Giant anteaters walk on their front knuckles. This allows their claws to stay out of the way while they move. Because of this, their front middle digits are longer, and support most of the animal’s weight. This extension also provides the anteater with more leverage as they use their claws to pull apart insect mounds or protect themselves.

Another distinctive feature of giant anteater is their tail. Their tail makes up nearly half their body length and features straw-like hairs that can reach over 16 inches in length. This helps the anteater to balance. They can also use it as a sunshade or blanket while they rest. With such incredible adaptations, giant anteaters are one of those unique animals that you almost must see to believe. On your next visit to the zoo, be sure to stop by Sniffy’s habitat to see for yourself why my mom is so enamored by this amazing animal and to learn more about the giant anteater.

Emily Sexson is a communication specialist at Lee Richardson Zoo.