As is to be expected, the giant anteater, native to the savannas of Central and South America, is the largest of its kind. This bizarre-looking mammal is designed specifically for feeding on ants and termites, and a number of anatomical features enable them to do this with great skill. Powerful forearms and long, sharp claws help the anteater to tear into anthills and termite mounds so they can insert their long, tapered snouts to get at the insects. They are always careful not to destroy the nest so as to preserve the feeding spot for another meal.
While the claws are mainly used for breaking into anthills, they can also perform a defensive role. When attacked by their main predators, which include large cats like jaguars, anteaters have been known to lash out and kill these hunters. While giant anteaters are slow, terrestrial creatures that walk around on their knuckles to protect the claws, smaller species of anteater are arboreal and spend a lot of time in trees looking for insects.
The giant anteater is a solitary creature and, aside from mothers and babies, they are rarely found in pairs or groups. Anteaters usually give birth to a single cub, who will then ride around on the mother’s back for up to a year, clinging on to the thick, coarse fur. Because they live on a diet of ants, whichhave relatively limited nutritional value, the giant anteater does what it can to conserve energy: it has a very low metabolic rate and will sleep for up to 15 hours every day. They move around the grasslands very slowly – they cannot run – and keep their body temperature low, sometimes as cool as 32.7 degrees Celsius (90.9 degrees Fahrenheit).
Although they have poor eyesight, anteaters have a very keen sense of smell for sniffing out insects, which include ants – of course, termites, grubs and other small insects.
Once an anthill is located the animal uses its strong claws to rip into the prey’s lair, making room to insert its long snout. Because some ants can sting and bite, mealtime is a fast and furious affair and the anteater has adapted techniques for licking up ants as quickly as possible. Each feast lasts about a minute before the anteater moves on to the next location.
Inside the anteater’s long snout is an even longer tongue, which can protrude up to 60cm (24in). The tongue is covered with sticky saliva produced by extra-large glands and thousands of tiny back-facing spines known as filiform papillae to ensnare the bugs. When the snout enters an anthill the tongue rapidly flicks back and forth up to 150 times per minute, searching for ants. Because it doesn’t have teeth, the anteater then crushes the insects against the roof of its mouth with its powerful tongue before swallowing.
Every day an anteater can consume between 30,000 and 35,000 ants, which is necessary for them to obtain enough nutrients. While ants may contain relatively high levels of protein and low levels of fat, their nutritional value for the giant anteater is low, so in order to conserve energy they move slowly and maintain a cool body temperature.