The giant anteater has powerful front legs and claws to rip open ant and termite mounds, along with a sticky 24 inch tongue to help slurp up all those insects. The anteater’s tongue goes in and out of its mouth about 150 times per minute. Although the anteater has strong forelegs, it does not climb trees or dig burrows. And, believe it or not—it is a good swimmer and will readily take to water.
Distribution: Forest, grassland and shrubland of Central America and northern South America
Diet in the Wild: Ants and termites
Diet at Caldwell Zoo: Feline diet, dog chow, banana and vitamin E
IUCN Red List Status: Vulnerable, population decreasing
Threats: Habitat loss, fires (often due to the burning of sugar cane fields before harvesting), hunting (for food, as a pest, or for illegal trade), collisions with cars
The anteater has the longest largest tongue length to body size ratio of all the mammals. Its tongue, which it uses to grab ants and termites out of their mounds, grows to about 2 ft (60cm) long. This tongue is covered in small, backwards-facing projections and coated in a sticky saliva, making it exceptionally efficient at dislodging the anteater’s meal from its home. Other adaptations that make it an effective hunter of these invertebrates are an elongated snout tipped with a sensitive nose which the anteater uses to seek out ant and termite nests, and long, sharp claws that can tear into a nest with ease.
Anteaters will eat up to 30,000 ants and termites in a day, but these don’t all come from the same mound. There are a couple of reasons for this. For one, an anteater isn’t immune to being bitten, and the longer it stays at mound the more chance it has of being repeatedly bitten. Secondly, by not eating all the ants or termites in one colony, the anteater ensures it has a renewing source of food that it can come back to in the future!