The giant anteater has been recorded from Honduras in Central America, south through South America to the Gran Chaco region of Bolivia, Paraguay and Argentina. Within Central America, the species has disappeared from much of its range, with recent sightings generally confined to highland regions. Its presence in Ecuador west of the Andes needs to be confirmed.
Areas where the species is probably extinct are marked in blue.
This terrestrial anteater is found in tropical moist forest, dry forest, savanna habitats and open grasslands; it has also been reported from the Gran Chaco (Meritt, 2008; Noss et al., 2008). Conversion of suitable habitat to soybean and sugarcane plantations is affecting the Brazilian subpopulations. There is also habitat loss in other range countries.
M. tridactyla is locally uncommon to rare. Giant anteaters are generally solitary. Males and females reach reproductive maturity at two years of age. Once per year, the female gives birth to a single young. Gestation length is about 190 days. The mother carries the offspring on its back for approximately six months. As it is not possible to determine their age once they reach adult size and long-term population studies on giant anteaters are lacking, there are no data on the longevity, survival rates, or reproductive rates of wild giant anteaters. The generation length is therefore unknown.
M. tridactyla is at risk from habitat loss in parts of its range, and this is a significant threat to Central American populations in particular. Where this species inhabits grassland habitats it is particularly susceptible to fires. Animals are sometimes killed on roads or by dogs. Giant anteaters are hunted for food throughout their distribution; this is especially true in the Caatinga area of Brazil. They are additionally hunted as a pest species, for pets or for illegal trade in some parts of their range. Their skin is sometimes used to manufacture harnesses and other leather products.
M. tridactyla is geographically widespread, but there have been many records of population extirpation, especially in Central America (where it is considered the most threatened mammal). It seems to be extinct in Belize, Guatemala, and probably also in Costa Rica. In South America, this species is extinct in Uruguay (Fallabrino and Castiñeira, 2006) and in the state of Santa Catarina, Brazil (Cherem et al., 2004). It is classified as Critically Endangered in Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil (Fontana et al., 2003) but will be categorized as Extinct in the next update of this state's Red List (C. Kasper, pers. comm., 2009).
The dietary specificity, low reproductive rates, large body size, along with threats to habitat degradation in many parts of its range, have proved to be significant factors in its decline.
The giant anteater is currently listed in a threat category in virtually all regional and national Red Lists. A population loss of at least 30% over the past 10 years has been estimated based on local extinctions, habitat loss, and deaths caused by fires and roadkills. Because of the real threats to this species and the noticeable declines, a precautionary assessment of Vulnerable is given. More data and population monitoring is required for this species, and a reassessment is recommended as soon as additional information is available.
M. tridactyla is listed on Appendix II of CITES. It has been recorded from many protected areas. It is protected as a national heritage species in some provinces in Argentina. There is a need to improve fire management practices, especially in sugarcane plantations and within the regions of grassland habitat occupied by this species. A Population Management Plan is in place in North American zoos and is being initiated in Brazil.
Additional information and a complete list of references can be found in: Superina, M., F.R. Miranda, and A.M. Abba (2010): The 2010 Anteater Red List Assessment. Edentata 11(2): 96-114. This article is available here.