Giant Anteater, Myrmecophaga tridactyla

Photograph of a giant anteater skin and skeleton in the Museum of Zoology

 Andrew Simpson, Visitor Engagement Volunteer, writes:

In the lower gallery of the Museum of Zoology there is a display showing the weird, wonderful and varied group of mammals known as the “Xenarthans”. Mammals that belong to this group include sloths, armadillos and anteaters, most of whom live in South and Central America. One animal in this group that catches my eye the most is the giant anteater. This rather odd looking golden retriever-sized animal, with a long, tube like snout, large claws and bushy tail, is one of my personal favourites.

When I look at the giant anteater (or “ant bear” as it’s sometimes called) I see an animal that has been moulded by millions of years of evolution into a perfect ant eating machine, one that is as specialised for its job as a submarine is for underwater exploration. Its distinctly shaped face allows it to fit its mouth into gaps in ant and termite nests where it then uses its 60cm long tongue to hoover up its dinner. This tongue fascinates me as it is truly a marvel of anatomy. It is the longest tongue relative to body size of any animal on the planet and the giant anteater can flick it in and out at a rapid 150 times a minute! Furthermore the giant anteater’s tongue is sticky, extremely flexible and covered in very tiny spines which latch on to ants and termites as the tongue flicks back into its mouth. With a tongue like this it’s no wonder the giant anteater doesn’t have any teeth, it doesn’t need them.

But it’s not just its tongue that makes the giant anteater stand out. It also possesses large, robust claws on its front limbs. These claws are quite sharp, and are kept that way because the anteater walks on the sides of its hands, protecting them from unnecessary damage. They need to be sharp in order to break apart the tough outer surface of termite mounds and to dig for underground ant nests. The giant anteater can also use these claws as weapons to protect itself from danger. They are so effective that even a jaguar (the big cat not the car!) would think twice about attacking it. Digging into big mounds all day is tiring work, so when it needs to rest the giant anteater deploys its bushy tail as a blanket to keep itself warm at night, or as a parasol to shield itself from the sun during the day.

The giant anteater is certainly a unique member of the Animal Kingdom, and whenever I’m volunteering at the Museum of Zoology, or just visiting, I always make sure to pay it a visit. Who knows, maybe one day if I’m lucky I’ll see one in the wild.

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