Creature Feature: Giant anteater

Giant anteaters (Myrmecophaga tridactyla) are one of only four living species of anteaters. Known for their insect-eating behavior and specially adapted muzzle, giant anteaters are a charismatic mammal often found in zoos across the world. However, despite the public’s fascination with these ant-eating giants, little is actually known about anteaters and their behavior in the wild.

A giant anteater [Source].

While their name implies they only eat ants, giant anteaters actually eat a combination of ants and termites to sustain themselves [1]. Their muzzles are specially adapted to fit into ant and termite nests, but anteaters are also incredibly crafty. In the wild, they choose which insect nests to prey upon based on the ratio of worker insects to soldier insects, thus maximizing the amount of insects they eat in one feeding bout [1]. Compared to the average mammal, anteaters have fairly slow metabolisms [2], but they need to eat a great deal of insects in order to maintain their large bodies.

Though anteaters have garnered a good deal of attention over their unique diet, little is known about the social behavior of giant anteaters. Based on observations in captivity, we know that mothers carry their infant anteaters on their backs. However, we know very little about their mating behavior or general social patterns in the wild. What we do know is that giant anteaters are solitary creatures. They tend to live alone and based on observations in Brazil, this species may be territorial [3] given an aggressive interaction involving chasing and wrestling that researchers were able to observe.

A mother anteater carrying her infant [Source].

In September of 2021, I happened to be at Estación Biológica Quebrada Blanco in Loreto, Peru for field work studying coppery titi monkeys. On my first day at the field station, I was lucky enough to witness a giant anteater trundling through the forest. I only got a blurry photo of its tail, but this moment was extremely exciting and unique; though researchers have worked at this field site for 35 years, they had never seen a giant anteater until this observation.

The tail of a giant anteater (circled in blue) at Estación Biológica Quebrada Blanco in Loreto, Peru, taken September 2021 [Source: Allison Lau].

Like all species on the planet, giant anteaters are currently threatened by climate change and deforestation. To aid conservation efforts, more basic research must be done to understand the social and spatial needs of these unique predators.


Allison Lau is a PhD Candidate in the Animal Behavior Graduate Group. She studies the communication of pair-bonding mammals including titi monkeys, gibbons, and coyotes. When she’s not actively working on bioacoustics, you can find her working on her latest children’s novel with her two cats and a litter of foster kittens.


References

[1] Redford, K. H. (1985). Feeding and food preference in captive and wild giant anteaters (Myrmecophaga tridactyla). Journal of Zoology, 205(4):559-72.

[2] Stahl, M., Osmann, C., Ortmann, S., Kreuzer, M., Hatt, J. M., & Clauss, M. (2012). Energy intake for maintenance in a mammal with a low basal metabolism, the giant anteater (Myrmecophaga tridactyla). Journal of animal physiology and animal nutrition, 96(5):818-24.

[3] Kreutz, K., Fischer, F., & Linsenmair, K. E. (2009). Observations of intraspecific aggression in giant anteaters (Myrmecophaga tridactyla). Edentata, 8:6-7.

[4] Heymann, E. W., Dolotovskaya, S., & Herrera, E. R. T. (2021). Estación Biológica Quebrada Blanco. ECOTROPICA, 23(1/2):202101.

Main image source

[Edited by Alexandra Dwulit]

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