Bio Facts: Anteater, Giant
Central and South America
Savannas, grasslands and tropical rain forests.
Coarse, long, gray-brown fur with black and white shoulder stripes. The body is covered in a thick mane. The giant anteater is over 6 feet long from head to tail, and can weigh up to 100 pounds. The tongue can be up to 24 inches long, and they do not have teeth. Eyes and ears are small.
In captivity, up to 26 years; in the wild, unknown
2.5 to 4 years
In the wild, termites, ants and soft grubs. In the zoo, canned milk, wet dog food, baby cereal, bananas, and orange slices.
Giant anteaters are typically solitary animals that almost constantly are searching for food. The long snout is used to locate prey colonies by scent, opened and demolished by the powerful claws (1.5 to 5 inches in length) and cropped on average for about one minute. It specializes in eating large ground-dwelling ants, such as the carpenter ants in the Venezuelan llanos. Giant anteaters usual ignore termites, leaf-eating ants, army ants, and other species with large jaws. As few as 140 ants (0.5% to 1% of the daily requirement) may be taken from a single colony on any day. And, since the giant anteater travels at 46 feet per minute, it can revisit many prey colonies within its home range at regular intervals, thus avoiding overexploitation of its food source.
If threatened, the giant anteater will elevate its snout to sniff the air. To defend themselves, they may gallop for a short time to distract a predator, or stand on hind legs and throw front feet forward. An embrace in these powerful forearms is as fearsome as its claws. Dogs, large cats, and even humans have succumbed to the grip.
They are diurnal in remote areas, but generally nocturnal near populated areas. While resting, the tail is bushed out and laid toward the head to cover most of the body.
In the southern part of its range, the giant anteater is believed to breed in the fall (March – May), but in captivity individuals also mate in the spring (August – October). Courtship has not yet been described. Since the adults are normally solitary, breeding individuals probably come together just before copulation and part shortly afterward. A mother will carry the young on her back for the first year. She gives birth standing on her hind legs, and uses her tail to balance. After birth, the mother licks her precocious young after it has crawled up through her fur onto her back. Females usually bear only one young and suckle it for six months.
At one month, young are capable of a slow, galloping movement, however, they will emit short, shrill whistles if left alone. They do not feed independently from their mothers until fully grown at the age of two years. Adults are normally silent, but bellow if provoked. Both sexes respond to the smell of their own saliva and can produce secretions from an anal gland; these odors are perhaps used in communication.
Although they do not burrow, giant anteaters dig out shallow depressions with their claws and lie asleep in these for 14 to 15 hours per day.
Good sense of smell. A very sticky tongue with minute, backward pointing spines is used to pick up ants and termites. The salivary glands secrete enormous quantities of viscous saliva onto the tongue, and trapped ants are drawn back and masticated first by horny papillae on the roof of the mouth and sides of the cheeks, and then by the muscular stomach. Several thousand ants may be eaten for one meal.
Their large claws are turned inward, and when walking, the giant anteater balances on its knuckles. The claws are thick enough to tear apart ant and termite nests.
Evidently, this species obtains most of its water from ants, although the tongue may be used on occasion to lap up free water and juicy fruits. Lips may be used to pick up larvae.
Their keen sense of hearing alerts them to the presence of predators (pumas and jaguars) while they are sleeping 14 to 15 hours per day.
The giant anteater was called “ant bear” by early explorers. The name was given due to its coarse fur and size.
In some anteaters that were dissected, masses of half-digested ants were found. These masses have weighed over 1 pound!
Detection by smell is probably excellent. Experiments with captive animals conditioned positively to detect a particular odor have shown that they can discriminate between the conditioned odor and a neutral odor even when it exists at only 1/4000 of the concentration of the neutral odor.
The tongue of the giant anteater can be pushed out of the mouth a remarkable 24 inches up to 150 times per minute to obtain prey. The sheath containing the tongue and tongue retracting muscles is actually anchored on the breastbone.
Giant anteaters have relatively slow metabolic rates and one of the lowest recorded body temperatures of any terrestrial mammals (91° F).
The abundance of the giant anteater varies with habitat and perhaps corresponds with the distribution of its prey. In the tropical forest on Barro Colorado Island, Panama, and in undisturbed grasslands of the southeastern highlands of Brazil, populations may attain densities of one to two animals per 5 – 10 square miles. However, in the mixed deciduous forests and semi-arid llanos of Venezuela, populations may be ten times as sparse with individual animals occupying large home ranges of 6,200 acres. The number of giant anteaters in the wild has declined due to over hunting, habitat destruction, and collection by live animal dealers. In many parts of Peru and Brazil, the giant anteater has been exterminated.
Jacksonville Zoo History:
The first pair of giant anteaters arrived here in September of 1951. During the 1990s, Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens was one of the most prolific giant anteater breeding facilities in the world.