Class: Mammalia (Mammals)
Body length: 40 to 48 inches (100 to 120 centimeters)
Tail length: 28 to 35 inches (70 to 90 centimeters)
Weight: 60 to 140 pounds (27 to 64 kilograms); males are heavier than females
Life span: about 15 years in the wild, up to 26 years in zoos
Gestation: about 190 days
Number of young at birth: usually 1
Weight at birth: 3 pounds (1.4 kilograms)
Age of maturity: 2 to 3 years
Conservation status: lower risk
• The giant anteater's species name, tridactyla, means "three
fingers." The anteater has five digits on each foot, but the middle
three digits of the front feet have extra-long claws.
• The giant anteater has the longest tongue in relation to its body size of any mammal.
• That long tail comes in handy. The giant anteater can use it like a bicycle kickstand to balance when standing on two legs.
• Giant anteaters can fend off or even kill their main predators, big cats such as jaguars and pumas.
• The giant anteater's sense of smell is 40 times more powerful than ours.
Mammals: Giant Anteater
Looks can be deceiving
Its name is a hint to one of its favorite foods, and you can't miss its long snout, but there's more to the story of the giant anteater! This unique animal is the largest of the three species of anteaters (the other species are the tamandua and the silky anteater). It is about the size of a golden retriever but thick, bushy hair makes it look even bigger. The anteater's gray hair feels like straw and grows especially long on the tail (up to 16 inches or 40 centimeters), and it sports a stylish stripe of black that stretches from under the nose to the middle of the back. This stripe is outlined in white, tan, or gray and goes down to a black ring around the base of the front feet. Giant anteaters use their hairy, bushy tails to curl over them like a blanket when the weather is cool. The head is shaped like a tube, and they have small black eyes and a little nose and mouth.
Do the shuffle
Giant anteaters walk with a slow shuffle on all four legs with their nose pointed to the ground. The anteater does not walk on its paws. Instead, with the claws curled up into the paws, it walks on its "fists." This helps to keep the claws sharp so the anteater can dig into ant mounds or defend itself from predators. Anteaters are also good swimmers. They use the freestyle stroke and their long snout as a snorkel.
Who ordered the ants?
Can you imagine eating nothing but ants all day long? Giant anteaters have no teeth but a specialized tongue that allows them to eat up to 30,000 ants and termites each day. These animals are perfectly designed to feed on these little critters, which is great because ants are a very reliable food source. The anteater's narrow tongue is about 2 feet (60 centimeters) long and looks like a strand of spaghetti with teeny, backward-pointing spines that are covered in sticky saliva when the animal is feeding. This long tongue darts inside an ant mound up to 150 times per minute, picking up the worker ants. The anteater will only feed at one mound for about a minute before moving on. After all, the animal doesn't want to totally wipe out its source of food! Anteaters may also eat fallen fruit and soft grubs.
At the San Diego Zoo, giant anteaters are given a high protein diet of special anteater pellets ground up into a paste that gives them the same nutrients they would get in the wild. A special treat for our anteaters is avocado.
Who wants a piggyback ride?
Giant anteaters are usually solitary mammals but will come together to mate and raise their young. In the wild they breed between March and May but are more flexible in zoos and will mate at anytime of the year. An adult female giant anteater gives birth to a single baby (twins are rare) while in a standing position, propped up by her strong tail. The baby, called a pup, loves to get piggyback rides from the mother. When a pup is born it has a full coat of hair and is almost identical to the adult. The pup will spend the first year of life hitching a ride on its mother's back; similar coloring helps the baby blend in so predators can't see it. It also makes the mother look larger and less tempting to predators. The pup will get off the mother's back frequently for nursing and spends more time exploring on its own as it gets older. The youngster will leave its mother at about two years of age.
Don't mess with me
The giant anteater's main enemies are jaguars and pumas, which hunt them in the grasslands, swampy areas, and forests where they live. To protect themselves, anteaters can rear up on their hind legs, roaring and slashing at an attacker with those powerful front legs and sharp claws. When threatened, these mild-mannered insectivores can suddenly appear quite ferocious, sending a predator off to find an easier meal.
A nose for survival
Giant anteaters are not endangered yet, but they have already disappeared from much of their habitat due to habitat loss and hunting. It is estimated that only 5,000 giant anteaters are left in the wild, while a small number (around 90) live in zoos in the United States. The unique giant anteater has been around for 25 million years and we hope that they can nose their way into the next million.