Giant Ant Eater

COMMON NAME: Giant Ant Eater 

SCIENTIFIC NAME: Myrmecophaga tridactyla

TYPE: Mammal

DIET: Insectivorous


SIZE: Head and body: 6 to 49 inches; tail: 7 to 35 inches

WEIGHT: 40 to 140 pounds


Anteaters are edentate animals—they have no teeth. But their long tongues are more than sufficient to lap up the 35,000 ants and termites they swallow whole each day. As the largest of all four anteater species, the giant anteater can reach eight feet long from the tip of its snout to the end of its tail. It is covered in grayish brown fur with white front legs, black stripes running from its chest to its back, and a bushy tail.

Giant anteaters can be found throughout South and Central America, though their numbers have diminished considerably from the latter. To thrive, they need to be able to move throughout large areas with patches of forest. They can often be found in tropical and dry forests, savannas, and open grasslands, where the ants upon which they feed are abundant.

The giant anteater uses its sharp claws to tear an opening into an anthill and put its long snout, sticky saliva, and efficient tongue to work. But it has to eat quickly, flicking its tongue up to 150 times per minute. Ants fight back with painful stings, so an anteater may spend only a minute feasting on each mound. Giant anteaters never destroy a nest, preferring to return and feed again in the future.

According to the IUCN Red List, giant anteaters are the most threatened mammals in Central America. Listed as a vulnerable species, they are considered extinct in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Uruguay. One of the major threats giant anteaters face is the loss of their grassland habitats due to fires set by sugar cane growers who traditionally burn their fields prior to harvest to remove the plant’s outer leaves, making the cane stalks easier to cut. Not only do these fires affect the habitat, but also the animals—giant anteaters may suffer significant burns.

In Argentina, the Iberá Project has rescued more than a hundred orphaned anteaters and reintroduced them to the wild. In Brazil, burning sugar cane is slowly being phased out in some parts of the country, while conservationists—including National Geographic Photo Ark EDGE Fellow Vinicius Alberici—are working in the Cerrado Biome to collect data on how roadways affect giant anteaters in hopes to set new protections.

Information on the Giant Ant Eater is courtesy of National Geographic