Central and South America are the exclusive home to several species of mammals with a huge appetite for ants and termites known collectively as the “true” anteaters.
Found in tropical savannas and forest ranging from Southern Mexico into the Amazon basin of central South America, these toothless animals all possess a flexible snout, a sticky saliva covered narrow tongue and a long tail. Most have relatively poor eyesight but an incredible sense of smell that helps them seek out ant colonies even those buried underground.
The anteaters come in a variety of sizes, from as small as a squirrel to the size of a golden retriever and each has a name to match.
The smallest species of anteater is the Silky Anteater, also sometimes known as the pygmy or dwarf anteater. They rarely weigh more than 10 ounces and usually grow between 15 and 20 inches long.
In addition to being the smallest, they are also the least-known of all the anteaters, mainly because they’re so hard to find. Found throughout Central and South America, silky anteaters are arboreal, spending their lives hidden in the tree canopy.
They also inhabit the island of Trinidad where the local residents may call them “poor-me-one.” It was once thought the animals were responsible for a lonely-sounding almost human like cry – this sound, however, turned out to belong to a native bird species. Most anteater species rarely vocalize except when very young.
The Silky Anteater’s more common name comes from its golden yellow color fur which has a soft, shiny texture. This fur covering helps it hide among the silk cotton trees where they often live. They may sometimes be found among mangrove trees in their habitats as well.
Silky Anteaters have a prehensile tail that aids in moving and balancing among the tree limbs.
They are nocturnal creatures that spend the day conserving energy curled in a ball, high in the trees – though it has been noted they rarely spend more than 2 days in a row in the same tree.
Unlike most other anteater species whose diet includes termites and some other insects, the Silky Anteater feeds almost exclusively on ants.
In addition, when caring for young, the female will also leave her young alone while foraging for food at night – while the young of other anteater species will almost always remain on the back of their mother for up to a year. A silky anteater is considered mature at 12 months old.
The silky anteater has traditionally been considered a single species of their kind but recent studies involving modern anatomical evaluations and DNA analysis of many Silky Anteaters in their various native ranges have led researchers to conclude there are as many as 7 distinct species of the world’s smallest anteaters.
A somwhat larger species at 2 to 3 feet in length and weighing up to 10 pounds the Tamandua is also called the Lesser Anteater. There are two species, the Northern and the Southern – or Collared – Tamandua. They have short, dense fur that helps prevent ants from reaching their skin. They may also have a dark v-shape mark down their back. Northern tamanduas are typically brownish in color while the Southern species may have a more yellow or golden tint and some may not display the distinctive v-shape marking.
The underside of their tails is fur-less, this allows them to grip tree branches more securely as they move through the trees. Unlike it’s smaller relative however, tamanduas will also spend some of their time on the ground.
They are found throughout much of South America and they can adapt to a number of different habitats but are often found near streams and rivers. In addition to ants and termites, tamanduas have been known to break open bee hives to feed on honey.
They are most active at night, often nesting during the day in hollow tree trunks. It has small eyes and poor vision but can hear and smell quite well.
Tamanduas may use their forearms and sharp front claws for defense against predators but more commonly they will emit a strong musty odor – said to be 4 times stronger than a skunk. Often this smell will deter a would-be attacker.
Despite their odor, tamanduas are sometimes used by people living in the Amazon to rid their home of ants and termites.
The largest of the anteater species is the appropriately named Giant anteater. Weighing up to 100 pounds and measuring up to 7 feet long they are native to the forest and grasslands of Honduras, Brazil and northern Argentina.
Giant anteaters have short, bristly hairs in shades of brown on their shoulders with wide, black stripes that run from their upper front legs toward the middle of their back. Their front legs are covered in longer white hairs and they have a bushy tail which resembles the texture of a horse’s mane.
Typically they are slower moving animals as the forage for the ants and termites they feed on but when necessary can travel up to 30 miles per hour. Giant anteaters can also climb and are good swimmers, using their snout as a snorkel.
Inside the long flexible muzzle is a 2 foot long tongue. Their narrow noodle-like tongue is covered in short backwards facing barbs and a sticky saliva secretion that aids in pulling ants into their toothless mouth and eventually ground up inside their stomach. Anchored to their sternum, giant anteaters are able to flick their tongue in and out of their mouth up to 150 times a minute.
Giant anteaters possess three curved, very sharp claws on their front legs. Using their powerful forearms and claws they are able to dig into buried ant nests and even break open rock hard termite mounds.
Giant anteaters protect their sharp front claws by tucking them into their palms effectively walking on their fists. Their back feet and claws are more similar to bears and though they are not related giant anteaters are sometimes called antbears.
Their claws also serve as a defensive weapon against predators including jaguars. Often when threatened they will rise up on their back legs, using their tail as a tripod to steady themselves and swipe – sometimes injuring or even killing a would be attacker.
Anteaters usually feed in short sessions at each colony of insects they find. By not depleting the area, there is a constant source of food within their habitat. These short feeding sessions also limit the amount of contact and possible stings they may endure from their prey.
In addition to the “true” anteaters the term “anteater” is often applied, in name only, to other ant-eating mammals around the world.
In Australia, the numbat, a small marsupial, is often called the banded anteater while the short-beaked echidna – one of the rare egg-laying mammals, is also known as the spiny anteater.
Asia and Africa are home to several species of plate covered creatures called pangolins. These animals are sometimes named the scaly anteater.
Another notable ant eating mammal often mistakenly referred to as an anteater is the aardvark. This powerful digging animal is exclusive to the continent of Africa. While all of these species share a common dietary preference they are not related to the South American anteaters at all.
Across the African savanna grasslands is a familiar sight. Large, towering structures often over 6 feet tall and hard as concrete. They are termite mounds. Created by secretions of the insects inside they are often used as lookout perches by some animals and scratching posts for others, such as elephants, but to one species – the termite mound is a buffet.
The aardvark, with it’s stocky build, powerful legs and sharp nails – is able to break open these rock hard structures and feast on the termites living within.
The aardvark is a nocturnal animal designed for burrowing. It is sometimes described as having a thick kangaroo-like tail, tall rabbit-like ears and it’s most striking feature: an extended pig-like snout.
They are about two feet tall at the shoulder and can be over six feet long from nose to tail. They can weigh up to 150 pounds.
The aardvark’s name comes from an Afrikaan word translated “earth pig.” Yet despite its pig like skin and snout it is not related to them.
Aardvarks have a great sense of smell and hearing that allows them to find both ant and termite colonies even in less obvious locations.
Their snout is long and flexible and they have a 12 inch coiled and tapered tongue that they use to lap up insects.
Unlike anteaters and pangolins which have similar diets but no teeth, aardvarks have about 20 teeth that they use to crush the insects that they consume. Their teeth have no enamel coating and continue to grow throughout the animals life.
With powerful front legs and sharp thick nails, they are excellent at digging – they may even dig a 2 foot hole in 15 seconds. When threatened by a predator they will often dig down into hole to escape. Their tall ears are able to fold back which protects them from debris while they are burrowing.
They create new complex burrows almost every day as they spend the hot African days sleeping inside. They rarely use the same burrows again but other animals may make use of abandoned aardvark holes for their home.
There is no dedicated breeding season for the aardvark who otherwise leads a mostly solitaire life. A single baby is born after a gestation of 7 months. Weighing only 5 pounds, pink and hairless- the young remain deep underground for about 2 weeks before it begins to emerge and follow its mother while foraging. Young aardvarks are able to dig their own burrows at 6 months of age and reach sexual maturity at 2 years old.
Whether serving as a natural pest control or indirectly providing shelter for other animals across the savanna, the aardvark is a vital member of their ecosystem.
Among the many unique species of ant-eating animals perhaps the most peculiar and unfamiliar is the pangolin. A solitary and elusive creature that is often difficult to study in the wild.
Though they share many characteristics with the anteaters of the Western Hemisphere, the pangolin – surprisingly – is actually more closely related to the order of Carnivora which includes cats, dogs and bears.
Pangolin species vary in size from about 3.5 lbs to a maximum of about 73 pounds. They vary in color from light to yellowish brown through olive to dark brown.
Once thought of as a reptile, they are actually the world’s only scale-covered mammals and are sometimes called scaly anteaters.
The overlapping scales that cover most of their body are formed by keratin, the same protein found in hair, fingernails and rhinoceros horns. These scales continue to grow throughput the animals life.
The belly of the pangolin does not contain scales but instead is covered in a small amount of fur. Pangolin limbs are short and thick, well adapted for digging. Each paw has five toes, and their forefeet have three long, curved, sharp claws.
Pangolin scales provide good defense against predators. When threatened, they can quickly curl into a ball, protecting their defenseless undersides. The word pangolin comes from a Malay word meaning “roller” in reference to this behavior. They also deter predators by hissing and puffing, and lashing their sharp edged tails.
Pangolins possess long, muscular, sticky tongues that allow them to reach ants and termites in deep cavities. The tongue is attached near its pelvis and last pair of ribs, and when fully extended is longer than the animal’s head and body. At rest, a pangolin’s tongue retracts into a sheath in its chest cavity.
Pangolin’s do not have teeth but their stomach contains keratinous spines projecting into its interior, along with small stones and sand they ingest which grind and mash their food.
Pangolins are found in both Africa and Asia. There are a total of 8 different species with 4 identified on each continent.
The Giant Pangolin is the largest living pangolin species. It is a ground dwelling animal found in mostly in central Africa often in moist habitats and near water sources. They may weigh more than 70 pounds.
The Temminck’s ground pangolin is the only species found in southern Africa. Unlike the Giant pangolin, it prefers a dry and arid savanna habitats and will often use abandon aardvark burrows.
The White Bellied and Black Bellied species are both arboreal. Different from the ground dwelling pangolins they are smaller in size, have larger eyes, an irregular scale pattern, a prehinsile tail that has bare tail pads used for climbing, and hair on the lower sections of the front legs. Both possess long tails but black-bellied pangolin’s tail can be twice the length of its body, the white bellied’s tail is noticeably shorter. The White-bellied pangolin is the most frequently encountered species in Africa.
The Sunda pangolin is the most widely distributed species of pangolin in Southeast Asia. It is primarily a tree dwelling species whose range overlaps with the ground dwelling Chinese pangolin. The Chinese species has a blunter tail and a scale pattern that gives the appearance of wearing a helmet.
The Philippine, or Palawan pangolin was only recently described as a species distinct from the Sunda pangolin. It has the greatest number of scale rows across its back of all Asian species and is only found on four islands within the Phillippines.
The Indian pangolin has the largest scales of the Asian species and while shy they have been known to dig through concrete and into houses.
The pangolin is considered the most heavily trafficked mammal in the world. They are caught and slaughtered for their scales which are highly sought after for illegal use in Asian traditional and folk medicines, as well as in the black-market jewelry trade.
Pangolins are often difficult to keep in managed care due to their highly specialized diet (often only eating certain species of ants found in their native range). Few accredited zoos have successfully housed and exhibited pangolins in North America.
Currently the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago and the Memphis Zoo – both members of the Pangolin Consortium – are two facilities that currently exhibit this amazing animal that may be on the brink of extinction.
Special thanks to the following organizations for their education, research and conservation programs that provided information for this episode:
Chicago Zoological Society’s Brookfield Zoo
IUCN SSC Pangolin Specialist Group
Lincoln Park Zoo
San Diego Zoo
Smithsonian’s National Zoo
The University Of Michigan’s Animal Diversity Web
For original wildlife artwork and more amazing animal facts visit: