Myrmecophagidae: American Anteater Family

There are 4 species of American anteater found in Mexico and Central and S. America as far south as northern Argentina. They normally inhabit tropical forests, but also occur in grassland. All forms have extremely elongate snouts and no teeth. Their tongues are long and covered with a sticky salivary secretion, which enables them to trap insects easily. The anteaters break into ant or termite nests by means of their powerful clawed forefeet, each of which has an enlarged third digit. The largest species, the giant anteater, is ground-dwelling, while the other, smaller species are essentially arboreal.

Giant Anteater

The remarkable giant anteater is the largest of its family. It has a long snout, a distinctive black stripe across its body and a bushy, longhaired tail. Individuals occupy large areas with sufficient nests for them to plunder. A single anteater can consume up to 30,000 ants daily. Using its powerful foredaws, the anteater breaks open ant or termite mounds and feeds on huge quantities of the insects and their eggs and larvae.

As it wanders in search of food supplies, the anteater walks on its knuckles, thus protecting its sharp foreclaws. Unlike other anteaters, this species does not climb trees, although it readily enters water and can swim. Except for females with young, giant anteaters usually live alone.

The female produces 1 young. The offspring is carried on the mother's back.

Distribution: Belize to northern Argentina.

Habitat: Forest, savanna

Food: Ants, termites and beetle larvae.

Size: 1 - 1.2 m (3.25 - 4 ft); 18 - 39 kg (39.75 - 86 lb).

Maturity: 2.5 - 4 years.

Breeding: Single young born throughout the year.

Life span: 25 years.


Silky Anteater

Range: S. Mexico, Central and South America to Bolivia and Brazil.

Size: 18 - 20 cm (7 - 8 in); 375 - 410 g (13.25 - 14.5 oz).

This anteater rarely comes down to the ground, but sleeps in a hollow tree or on a branch during the day. Like its relatives, it uses its sharp, powerful foreclaws to break into ant and termite nests. They may frequent silk cotton trees, whose seed pods are the same colour as the anteater, which offers them protective camouflage.

Little is known about the silky anteaters breeding habits. The female produces 1 young, which both parents feed on regurgitated insects.


Northern Tamandua

This anteater is a tree dweller. It is smaller than its giant relative and has a prehensile tail, which it uses as a fifth limb. The underside of the tail is naked to improve its grip. Sometimes called lesser anteaters, tamanduas have a long snout with a tiny mouth, and long, curved claws. They use their claws to climb through the branches of trees in search of food. They do forage and rest on the ground, but out of the trees they are more clumsy and vulnerable to attack. On the ground, the northern tamandua moves slowly and clumsily.

It is active mainly at night, when it breaks open the nests of tree-living ants and termites and feeds on the insects. Like all anteaters, it has a long, protrusible tongue, which is covered with sticky saliva, enabling it to trap its prey. If attacked, the northern tamandua strikes out at its adversary with its powerful foreclaws.

A V-shaped marking down the back of the neck makes this species look as though it is wearing a vest - hence its alternative name of vested anteater.

Like other anteaters, tamanduas lack teeth, so they grind up their insect food using a muscular stomach sac called a gizzard. The gizzard also contains little pebbles and pieces of grit that are swallowed along with the ants. These hard objects help to break down the food into a digestible paste.

Tamanduas are traditionally known as stinkers of the forest. They also communicate with hisses.

The female gives birth to 1 young. The youngster is carried on its mother's back but may be set down on a branch while she feeds.

Distribution: Central and S. America.

Habitat: Rainforest.

Food: Termites and ants.

Size: 47 - 77 cm (18.5 - 30.5 in); 2 - 7 kg (4.5 - 15.5 lb).

Maturity: 1 year.

Breeding: Single young born in spring.

Life span: 9 years.

Status: Common.


Southern Tamandua

This member of the anteater family is also known as the collared anteater. Colouration varies markedly, depending on the area of origin. These anteaters spend much of the day asleep in tree holes.

Superficially very similar to its northern relative, the southern tamandua lives in South America. In the south of its range, it has a "vest" pattern to its black and blonde coat, which resembles that of the northern tamandua. In the northern part of the range, the fur is of a single colour, ranging from black to blonde and brown.

Southern tamandua seem to attract insects such as flies and mosquitoes. This may be linked in part to their body odour.

These animals are mainly arboreal, using their long claws to grip tree bark as they climb. On the ground, they walk on the sides of their feet, because the claws would stick into the soles if they walked flat-footed. When cornered, a tamandua uses its claws as weapons. It stands on its hind legs with its back against a tree trunk and stretches out its powerful forelegs. In this position it can deliver slashing blows to any predator that approaches.

Distribution: Occurs in S. America, in an area ranging east of the Andes from Venezuela in the north, southwards as far as Argentina and Uruguay.

Weight: 3 - 7 kg (7 - 16 lb); males are bigger.

Length: 93 - 147 cm (37 - 58 in); the tail is almost as long as the body.

Maturity: From 1 year.

Gestation Period: 130 - 150 days.

Breeding: 1; weaning occurs at around 3 months.

Food: Feeds largely on arboreal ants and termites, avoiding those that can defend themselves effectively, such as army ants.

Lifespan: Up to 9.5 years.


The ears are large and elongated.


The prehensile tail supports the anteater off the ground.


Those from southeastern areas have black markings. Elsewhere colours vary from solid blond to black.

Front paws

There are four claws present on the front paws, with five on each hindfoot.


Southern tamanduas can hang off branches to reach insect nests. They also adopt this posture if threatened, so they can strike out with their powerful forelegs.

This species of anteater cannot run on the ground, but will lunge at a predator if cornered.