Anteaters form the Vermilingua, or “worm tongue” suborder of animals. Their name comes simply from the fact that these mammals feed on termites and ants!
Did you know that fossil records show that anteaters have been roaming our planet for millions of years?
They were once considered related to aardvarks (burrowing nocturnal mammals) and pangolins (also called scaly anteaters, although they aren’t true anteaters).
These three had similar physical characteristics – strong forearms adapted for digging, tube-like snouts, and long tongues.
Later, however, scientists concluded that they had no common ancestors.
Therefore, anteaters are now related only to sloths and armadillos.
Of the eight anteater genera grouped into two families, only four species from three genera are still alive.
Unfortunately, one is already listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List.
Do you want to learn more about the four extant anteater species?
We’ve got some incredible facts to satisfy your curiosity! Keep reading!
4. Giant Anteaters
Also known as Myrmecophaga tridactyla, the giant anteater is the largest of the four extant anteater species with a decreasing population.
Some scientists recognize three giant anteater subspecies based on their range, which includes Central and South America.
Giant anteaters inhabit grasslands, wetlands, and tropical forests within their natural distribution.
However, many local populations went extinct, especially in Central America, due to hunting, habitat loss, and wildfires.
Moreover, wildfires are a significant threat to the giant anteater populations since they’re slow animals and have highly flammable coats.
Giant anteaters measure around 71.5-85.5 inches long.
Except for the fact that males are slightly larger than females, it’s almost impossible to distinguish the two only by assessing their physical characteristics.
These mammals have distinctive bushy tails, elongated heads, and small ears.
Their fur exhibits a combination of gray, brown, black, and white, which form a unique pattern known to function as a warning coloration, also called aposematism.
Although giant anteaters can’t move their jaws too much and have no teeth, they swallow at a very high rate compared to other mammals!
These curious creatures “visit” around 200 nests during their daily foraging and can eat up to 30,000 insects a day!
Compared to other anteater species, giant anteaters are primarily terrestrial.
They rely on their excellent smell (40 times more sensitive than a human’s) to find prey.
Once they find a nest, giant anteaters use their foreclaws and long tongues to tear the nest open and feed.
3. Silky Anteaters
You might’ve heard of silky anteaters under other names, like pygmy or dwarf anteaters, as well as two-toed anteaters.
The last term points to the two claws on a silky anteater’s forefeet. Scientifically, these mammals are called Cyclopes didactylus.
Their taxonomic classification once included seven subspecies, but a 2017 study suggests that previous studies did not provide enough data to conclude that there are indeed seven varieties of silky anteaters.
Silky anteaters are native to Central and South America, and their natural habitats include various types of forests found at elevations of up to 4,900 feet.
However, they prefer living in environments equipped with silk cotton trees, as well as in mangrove forests.
Dwarf anteaters are the smallest of the four species, measuring only up to 18 inches long.
Their soft and shiny fur can be grayish or yellowish, but some may have brownish or blackish streaks.
Their tails are partially prehensile, meaning they can use them to grab or hold onto branches while leaping from one to another.
Since they are usually found in trees at altitudes of 5-30 feet, their tails are of excellent help in maintaining balance!
Since silky anteaters are much smaller than giant anteaters, their food intake is also more limited; silky anteaters can eat 5,000 insects a day at most.
They prefer eating ants but may occasionally eat wasps, termites, and coccinellid beetles, as well as fruits if they live in captivity.
Pygmy anteaters prefer foraging alone. Mothers, however, move through the habitat with their young.
2. Northern Tamandua
Scientifically known as Tamandua mexicana, the northern tamandua is a medium-sized anteater native to the tropical and subtropical forests of Central and South America.
The four northern tamandua subspecies live in mangrove swamps, secondary forests, and evergreen and deciduous forests.
These mammals have pale yellow fur and a unique blackish patch covering their backs, shoulders, and flanks.
As such, if you ever spot a northern tamandua, you’d think it’s wearing a black vest! Males and females are similar, measuring up to 51 inches long.
Their half-furred, half-hairless tails are prehensile and prevent them from falling off branches, where they spend almost half of their lives.
Northern tamanduas also have prehensile forefeet thanks to the tough pads on the palms and the strong toe muscles.
The claw on a northern tamandua’s third digit of its forelimb offers it the power to break materials as tough as wood!
Northern tamanduas will likely prefer feeding on larger ants like carpenter or cocktail ants.
Their long, thin tongues are sticky and help these tamanduas catch insects.
They forage alone and use their sense of smell to find the 50-80 ant and termite colonies they dig into throughout a single day.
However, since the ants they feed on rely on natural defense techniques, northern tamanduas do not damage their nests permanently and spend less than a minute at each colony.
In short, ants chase them away to protect their territories!
These anteaters are primarily active at night for around eight hours.
During this time, they can eat up to 9,000 insects. However, they may sometimes venture through their habitat during the day.
1. Southern Tamandua
Southern tamanduas are close relatives of northern tamanduas. They are scientifically known as Tamandua tetradactyla.
Four subspecies are recognized and grouped according to their distribution.
These mammals are native to Trinidad and South America and are most common in habitats near rivers and streams.
Although considered highly similar to their northern relatives, southern tamanduas have variable fur patterns that are dependent on their range.
For example, those living in Trinidad do not exhibit the distinctive dark vest, being solid blonde.
Moreover, the southern species has longer ears, a slightly different skull shape, and is generally larger than its northern counterpart.
Southern tamanduas are solitary creatures that forage primarily at night and spend the rest of the time in hollow tree trunks or burrows.
Like other anteater species, these tamanduas are predominantly arboreal and use their prehensile tail to hold onto branches.
These mammals use their keen scent to track prey.
They do not have a strong prey preference and may feed on various types of insects, including carpenter and army ants, termites, and beetle larvae.
Southern tamanduas have been observed eating small amounts of fruit. In captivity, southern tamanduas are believed to feed on honey and bees as well.
Did you know those northern and southern tamanduas emit a very nasty smell from their anal glands?
This is a defensive technique they rely on when they feel threatened.