Meet the giant anteater

Photo by Eric Kilby. Retrieved from Flickr on 06-01-2023. Shared under CC BY-SA 2.0.

It’s summer here in Boston, which means the dreaded return of ants. We’ve been getting ants in our house lately (although they seem to be gone after we set out some traps!).

But you know what else can get rid of ants?


Anteaters are animals in the order Pilosa, an order that includes sloths. There are four different species of anteaters: silky anteaters, northern tamanduas, southern tamanduas, and giant anteaters. We’re going to focus on giant anteaters here.

As you may have guessed, giant anteaters (Myrmecophaga tridactyla) are the largest anteaters, with bodies about the size of golden retrievers. Add in the tail, and you get a pretty big creature – six to eight feet long from nose to tail tip! You can find giant anteaters in Central and South America.

Here’s a random fun fact: giant anteaters have one of the lowest body temperatures among mammals. Their body temperature stays around 91 degrees Fahrenheit (32.7 degrees Celsius). Giant anteaters can use their busy tail, which has the texture of a horse’s mane, as a blanket to keep themselves warm.

Slurping ants

The most noticeable characteristic of giant anteaters is their long snout. This snout hides an ant’s greatest fear: a 2-foot-long tongue.

A long tongue the shape of spaghetti. Photo by Ellen. Retrieved from Wikipedia on 06-01-2023. Shared under CC BY 2.0.

This tongue is perfectly shaped to get inside ant and termite nests. It’s also covered in sticky saliva and small spines pointing toward the back of the throat. This makes a sticky trap for ants and termites, which are then directly delivered to the mouth.

Since giant anteaters don’t have any teeth, their meals are basically swallowed whole. However, giant anteaters crush their food against their hard upper palate, which helps digestion.

Environmentally considerate

Giant anteaters can eat a lot of ants in a day. After all, their tongue can flick in and out of its mouth 150 times a minute! A typical giant anteater will eat up to 35,000 ants and termites in a single day.

But this doesn’t mean that they eat a lot of insects from the same place. In fact, a giant anteater only consumes about 140 insects from a mound in a single feeding.

Why? Well, giant anteaters seem to prefer the lightning attack method. They go in, eat some insects, and then visit another mound. This quick attacking method means they can leave before the ants mount a defense. While giant anteaters have relatively thick fur on their snout, they still don’t want to be bitten by a huge ant swarm!

This method of eating also means that giant anteaters are never completely wiping out insect colonies. Instead, they eat so that a colony will never lose a critical amount of insects, and the ecosystem stays balanced.

Sharp claws

When you look at a giant anteater, you may be focused on its snout and tongue, not its front claws. But this is a mistake! Giant anteaters have a second way of getting to ants – their extremely sharp front claws.

These claws help break into ant and termite nests their tongue can’t get into. Giant anteaters walk on their front knuckles like apes to keep their claws sharp. This prevents their front claws from rubbing on the ground and getting dull.

And these claws are sharp! Although giant anteaters are primarily peaceful creatures, they can successfully defend themselves against predators like pumas and jaguars with their claws. You don’t want to be on the wrong end of a giant anteater’s swipe!

One last fun fact: giant anteaters are strong swimmers, and they can use their snouts as snorkels!

They also carry their babies on their back! Photo by Bradley Buhro. Retrieved from Flickr on 06-01-2023. Shared under CC BY 2.0.


Smithsonian’s National Zoo & Conservation Biology Institute

National Geographic

Animal Diversity Web

Potawatomi Zoo


San Diego Zoo

San Francisco Zoo

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