Anteaters: Anatomy, Types & Habitat

Instructor: Amanda Robb
In this lesson you can expect to learn about the four species of anteaters. We'll go over their physical characteristics and the habitats they live in in Central and South America.

What Are Anteaters?

What's your favorite dinner? You might be thinking of a burger or pizza, but these aren't even the least bit tempting to some animals. Anteaters prefer a diet made of ants and termites, much as their name suggests. These animals go big or go home, with some species eating up to 35,000 ants per day! Anteaters are mammals with a characteristic long snout lacking teeth. However, teeth aren't needed as they sport a giant, sticky tongue that they use to lap up ants and termites.


Giant Anteater

Perhaps the most notorious of all anteaters is the giant anteater. These anteaters can be longer than a grown man is tall, reaching up to seven feet long and weighing up to 140 pounds. Although they don't have teeth anteaters have large, sharp claws that they use to tear into ant and termite mounds or for defense. Once the mound is open they use their elongated snout to probe the mound and flick their long tongue in and out as fast as 160 times per minute!

A giant anteater extends its tongue at the Michigan zoo
giant anteater

The anteater must act quickly as these insects don't give up without a fight. Imagine thousands of ants biting your tongue. The anteater feeds for about a minute and then moves on. They leave the mounds intact so they can return to feed later.

Giant anteaters are clumsy on land as they curl their claws in and walk on their knuckles. This way, their claws do not get dulled by the ground. However, they are adept swimmers using their arms to paddle and their long snout as a snorkel.

Silky Anteater

Quite the opposite of the giant anteater, the silky anteater only weighs 0.7 pounds and reaches a maximum of 17 inches long. These animals dwell in the trees and their yellow fur camouflages them in the silk bundles grown by the silk cotton trees, hence the name silky anteater. Unlike the giant anteater, the silky anteater has a prehensile tail, which helps it grasp tree branches for its arboreal life. This anteater rarely descends to the ground and instead consumes a diet of ants entirely found in the trees.

Silky anteaters, like all anteaters, are nocturnal. During the day, they can be found curled up in trees in the canopy around twenty feet from the ground. With their small size, prehensile tail and claws, they easily cling to branches without falling.

Northern Tamandua

Tamanduas are also known as lesser anteaters because of their small size. There are two species of tamandua, the northern and southern. As their name implies, the northern tamandua lives further north, throughout southern Mexico through Central America to northern Peru and Venezuela. The southern tamandua lives south of there throughout South America as far south as Uruguay and northern Argentina.

The northern tamandua is larger than the silky anteater, but not quite as big as the giant anteater. It can grow up to about 4.5 feet in length from head to tail and weigh up to about 15 pounds. They can be recognized by a dark 'V' going down their back and around their arms, making them appear as if they are wearing a vest.

A northern tamandua climbs a tree
northern tamandua

It eats both ants and termites and can be found near streams and trees covered in vines as these are a favorite home of ants. Like other anteaters, the northern tamandua has poor vision. It relies on its large ears to hear in the forest and a keen sense of smell to track prey.

Southern Tamandua

In addition to living south of the northern tamandua, the southern tamandua can also be distinguished by its size. It's smaller than the northern tamandua with a length of about 2.6 feet and weighs 10 pounds on average.

Their colors vary depending on what region they are found in. Southern tamanduas living in the northern part of their range may be a solid color, or have lighter colored markings over their fur. However, southern tamanduas living in the south tend to have darker markings.

Southern tamanduas may be solid or have lighter markings compared to northern tamanduas
southern tamandua

Like their northern cousins, the southern tamandua enjoys a diet of both ants and termites. However, they also will eat bees and their honey.

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