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The claws of the giant anteater are perfectly adapted for ripping termite and ant mounds apart. The thin, extendable tongue, which can be up to 61cm in length, then reaches into the centre of the colony to feast on the insects. This long tongue is covered in minute spines (papilliae) and coated in saliva in order to trap the eggs, cocoons and adult ants until they can be transferred into the mouth. The anteater does not have teeth, so it swallows small stones and sands to help it crush and digest food in its strong stomach.
The giant anteater is found from southern Belize to northern Argentina in South America. This terrestrial anteater is found in tropical moist forest, dry forest, savannah habitats and open grasslands. They are mainly active during the day in uninhabited areas but if they are disturbed or the area is densely populated, they tend to be more active at night. Although adept at digging, the giant anteater does not construct burrows but tends to seek a secluded spot to curl up in, covering its head and body with its fan-like tail.
Giant anteaters tend to be solitary creatures except for females and their young. The single young will be born weighing around 1-2kg and will be weaned by 6 weeks. The mother carries the offspring on her back for up to a year, when the offspring is nearly fully grown. The young anteater will remain with its mother until she becomes pregnant again.
The natural predators of a giant anteater are the puma and jaguar, although they have to be very careful to keep out of the way of the forelimbs as the sharp claws mean that the embrace of a giant anteater is potentially fatal.
Within Central America, the giant anteater has disappeared from much of its range, so much so that it is considered the most threatened mammal of Central America. Each country in South America has its own classification of how at risk the giant anteater is of extinction in that area. The main threats facing this creature are from habitat loss, fires in grassland areas as well as burning of sugar cane plantations. Giant anteaters are also hunted for food throughout their distribution and are additionally hunted as a pest, for pets or for illegal trade. On the more positive side, giant anteaters are found in many protected areas and there is a reintroduction program being carried out in Corrientes province of Argentina. They are listed on Appendix II of CITES, which means that trade in the animal or any of its parts is restricted.
Size Head-body: 100-120cm; tail length: 65-90cm
Gestation 171-184 days
Life span Up to 25 years
There have been giant anteaters that have been recorded as weighing as much as 60kg.
A giant anteater can eat as many as 35,000 ants or termites in a single day.
The tongue of the giant anteater can be pushed out and pulled back into the mouth up to 160 times per minute!
Even though giant anteaters are able to climb trees, they rarely do.