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Anteater: Characteristics, Diet, Facts & More [Fact Sheet]

Welcome to the fascinating world of anteaters, the insect-loving mammals of the suborder Vermilingua, which means “worm tongue” in Latin.

Known for their distinctive, elongated snouts and long, sticky tongues, anteaters are intriguing creatures that play a crucial role in controlling insect populations.

This article explores the natural history of anteaters, providing an in-depth look at their species and subspecies, physical characteristics, behavior, and the challenges they face in the wild.

The Anteater at a Glance


Class:Mammalia (Mammals)
Family:Myrmecophagidae and Cyclopedidae
Genus:Myrmecophaga, Tamandua, Cyclopes
Species:Myrmecophaga tridactyla (Giant Anteater), Tamandua tetradactyla (Southern Tamandua), Tamandua mexicana (Northern Tamandua), Cyclopes didactylus (Silky Anteater)

Essential Information

Average Size:Giant Anteater: 6-7 ft (1.8-2.1 m), Tamandua: 3.3-4.6 ft (1-1.4 m), Silky Anteater: 14-17 in (35-45 cm)
Average Weight:Giant Anteater: 60-100 lbs (27-45 kg), Tamandua: 7-19 lbs (3-8.5 kg), Silky Anteater: 0.562-0.992 lbs (255-450 g)
Average Lifespan:Giant Anteater: 14-16 years, Tamandua: 9-11 years, Silky Anteater: 2-5 years
Geographical Range:Central and South America
Conservation Status:Giant Anteater: Vulnerable, Tamandua: Least Concern, Silky Anteater: Data Deficient (IUCN Red List)

Species and Subspecies

There are four recognized species of anteaters:

  • The Giant Anteater (Myrmecophaga tridactyla)
  • The Northern Tamandua (Tamandua mexicana)
  • The Southern Tamandua (Tamandua tetradactyla)
  • The Silky Anteater (Cyclopes didactylus)

These species share common features like the absence of teeth and long tongues for capturing prey, but they vary significantly in size and habitat preference.

The Giant Anteater is the largest species, boasting an imposing length of up to 7 feet (2.1 m). The Tamanduas are medium-sized and are capable climbers, often found in trees. The Silky Anteater is the smallest of the group, known for its lustrous golden fur and arboreal lifestyle.



Anteaters have a distinctive appearance characterized by elongated snouts, small eyes, and large, rounded ears. Their bodies are well-adapted to their insectivorous lifestyle.

The long, sticky tongue, which can extend up to 2 feet (60 cm) in Giant Anteaters, is a defining feature. This tongue, combined with powerful, clawed forelimbs, allows them to penetrate ant hills and termite mounds.

Their coloration varies, with the Giant Anteater showcasing grey and black fur with a characteristic diagonal white-bordered black stripe on its shoulder, while the Tamanduas have golden fur with a black vest-like pattern. The Silky Anteater, true to its name, sports dense and soft yellowish fur.

Anteaters exhibit limited sexual dimorphism, with males and females appearing very similar. Males may be slightly larger than females in some species, but this is not always easily noticeable.

Habitat and Distribution

Anteaters inhabit a variety of environments, including rainforests, grasslands, and deciduous forests across Central and South America.

The Giant Anteater is more terrestrial and prefers grasslands and open areas, while both the Tamanduas and the Silky Anteater are more arboreal, spending much of their time in the trees of rainforests and other woodlands. Their distribution extends from Southern Mexico to the northern regions of Argentina.

Giant anteater


Anteaters are generally solitary creatures, spending most of their life alone except during mating or mother-young interactions. They are also not territorial, with home ranges of different individuals often overlapping significantly.

Their activity patterns can vary by species and environmental factors. For example, Giant Anteaters can be active during the day (diurnal) or night (nocturnal) depending on the season and human activity levels in the area, while Tamanduas and Silky Anteaters are primarily nocturnal.

Anteaters communicate primarily through scent, leaving a chemical trail with their anal gland secretions. They also use physical posturing, especially during disputes, and have a limited range of vocalizations.

Diet and Feeding Behavior

As their name suggests, ants and termites form the bulk of an anteater’s diet, making them specialized insectivores. They use their keen sense of smell to locate ant nests or termite mounds, then break into them using their strong claws. Once breached, they extend their long, sticky tongue to capture the insects.

Despite consuming large numbers of ants or termites at a single feeding, anteaters avoid destroying the colony entirely, which ensures the insects can repopulate and provide a future food source. Anteaters can consume thousands of insects per day to meet their nutritional needs.


Natural predators of anteaters vary depending on their species and size. The Giant Anteater, with its formidable size and powerful forelimbs, has few predators, with Jaguars and Pumas being the notable exceptions.

Tamanduas and Silky Anteaters are smaller and more vulnerable, facing threats from large birds of prey, such as eagles and hawks, as well as various large cat species. The young are especially susceptible to predation when left alone by their mothers during foraging.

Anteater looking for food

Reproduction and Life Cycle

Anteaters have no specific breeding season, and mating can occur at any time of the year. They have an interesting courtship ritual where the male mounts the female from behind while they stand on their hind legs. After mating, the female will carry the male on her back for a short period.

The gestation period varies among species but falls within the range of 120 to 190 days. Anteaters typically give birth to a single offspring at a time. The young, known as a pup, is born fully furred and is a miniature version of the adult.

The mother carries the pup on her back until it is old enough to forage for itself, which usually happens around a year of age. The mother continues to care for the young for up to two years, teaching them essential survival skills.

Conservation and Threats

The conservation status of anteaters depends on the species. The Giant Anteater is considered Vulnerable by the IUCN, primarily due to habitat loss and collisions with vehicles.

Silky Anteaters’ conservation status is less certain due to a lack of data, but they are also threatened by deforestation. The Northern and Southern Tamanduas are considered of Least Concern but still face threats from habitat loss and hunting.

Conservation efforts for anteaters include habitat protection and restoration, roadkill mitigation strategies, and public education about these unique creatures.

In some areas, anteaters are protected by law from hunting. Research is also ongoing to better understand the ecology and behavior of these species, which can help inform conservation strategies.

Fun Facts

  1. Despite the common misconception, anteaters don’t actually have teeth! They use their long, sticky tongues to catch and consume their primary food source: ants and termites.
  2. The tongue of an anteater can extend up to 2 feet (60 cm) out of its mouth. It’s not attached to the hyoid bone as in most mammals, but instead to the sternum, which allows for such remarkable extension.
  3. Anteaters are known to consume up to 30,000 insects per day. This makes them a crucial part of the ecosystem, helping to control insect populations.
  4. An anteater’s sense of smell is 40 times more potent than that of humans. They largely rely on this sense to locate ant and termite colonies, as their eyesight is poor.
  5. When threatened, anteaters can stand on their hind legs and use their powerful front claws to defend themselves. Despite their generally docile nature, they can cause severe injuries to potential predators.

Frequently Asked Questions

Are anteaters aggressive?

No, anteaters are generally not aggressive animals. They tend to avoid human interaction and will only attack if they feel threatened.

How do anteaters eat without teeth?

Anteaters use their long, sticky tongues to pick up ants and termites. They then swallow their prey whole. The stomach grinds the insects, assisted by small amounts of ingested sand and dirt.

Can you keep an anteater as a pet?

While anteaters are sometimes kept as exotic pets, they have complex dietary and environmental needs that can be difficult to meet in a household setting. They are also wild animals and are best left in their natural habitats.

How long do anteaters live?

In the wild, anteaters can live up to 15 years. In captivity, with a controlled diet and no natural predators, they can live up to 25 years.

How do anteaters sleep?

Anteaters typically sleep for up to 15 hours a day. They often curl up in abandoned burrows or dense vegetation, using their bushy tails as a blanket to cover their bodies.

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