other common names
With a head-body length of 1–1.4 m, a tail of 60–90 cm and a weight of 22–45 kg, this is the largest anteater species. Its most characteristic features are the elongated head with a small, circular, toothless mouth; the small, rounded ears; and the long tail that is covered with long and brushy hair. The coarse hair covering the body varies from light to dark gray or brown to grizzled. A characteristic triangular band enclosed by white lines extends from the chest and throat to the anteater’s back, and the white forelegs sometimes bear a black band or spots. The forefeet have four digits, with the second and third bearing long, powerful digging claws.
Giant anteaters feed primarily on ants and termites. They can ingest thousands of these insects per day. Occasionally, they also eat unusual items such as beetle larvae or honeybees that maintain their colonies in termite mounds.
Giant anteaters occur from Honduras in Central America, south through all of 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. The giant anteater is considered the most threatened mammal of Central America; it seems to be extinct in Belize and Guatemala, and has disappeared from parts of Costa Rica. In South America, this species seems to be extinct in Uruguay and in the state of Santa Catarina, Brazil.
Giant anteaters walk on their knuckles like some primates. They can extend their long, worm-like, sticky tongue between 35 and 40 cm.
The giant anteater is at risk of extinction due to habitat loss in large 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. In Brazil, burning of sugar cane plantations prior to their harvest leads to the death of significant numbers of giant anteaters due to severe burn injuries. Animals are sometimes killed on roads or by dogs. In some parts of their range, giant anteaters are occasionally hunted for food, and are additionally caught in the wild to be kept as pets or for the illegal trade.
HaBITAT and ECOLOGy
This terrestrial anteater is found in tropical moist forest, dry forest, savanna habitats and open grasslands; it is common in many parts of the Gran Chaco.
Giant anteaters become reproductively active between 1.8–4 years of age. A single offspring is born after a pregnancy of around 6 months. Mothers carry their offspring on their backs for several months. The young become independent at 8–9 months of age.
This species is listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. It is widespread geographically, but there have been many records of local extinctions, especially in Central America (where it is considered the most threatened mammal) and the southern parts of its range. The dietary specificity, low reproductive rates, large body size, along with threats to habitat degradation in large 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 has been estimated based on local extinctions, habitat loss, and deaths caused by fires and road kills. Based on this decline and past threats that are still ongoing today, it is likely that the population has suffered an overall reduction in population size of >30% over the last three generations (suspected to be around 21 years). Because of the real threats to this species and the noticeable declines, a precautionary assessment of Vulnerable is given.