9 Fascinating Anteater Facts

Giant Anteater Wetland Brazil
Fandrade / Getty Images

The anteater is part of the suborder Vermilingua, which appropriately means "worm tongue." There are four species of anteaters: giant anteater, silky anteater, northern tamandua, and southern tamandua. Anteaters are abundant across Central and South America, except for the giant anteater, which is categorized as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List.

Anteaters are often confused with two long-snouted animals, aardvarks and echidnas. Aardvarks are small African mammals, part of the Orycteropodidae family. Although they have some similar physical characteristics, anteaters have quite a bit of fur and short ears, whereas the aardvark is nearly furless with long ears. Echidnas, often called "spiny anteaters," are egg-laying mammals from Australia and New Guinea.

The following facts about the anteater will shine some light on this often misunderstood but captivating creature.

Fast Facts

  • Common Name: Anteater
  • Scientific Name: Vermilingua
  • Average Lifespan in the Wild: 10 to 15 years
  • Average Lifespan in Captivity: Up to 26 years
  • IUCN Red List Status: Giant anteater: vulnerable; silky anteater: least concern; northern tamandua: least concern; southern tamandua: least concern
  • Current Population: Unknown

1. Anteater Tongues Are Covered in Spines

Anteater with its long tongue sticking out

guillame regrain / Getty Images

Anteaters use their tongues as their primary tool for gathering food. These organs can be up to two feet in length and come covered in small, spiny protrusions and sticky saliva. The shape and design allows the anteater to maneuver its tongue down into the narrow spaces where ants and termites burrow. Anthills and termite mounds are no match for the anteater, which grabs its food with rapid-fire flicks of the tongue, devouring hundreds at a time.

2. They Have Knifelike Claws

giant anteater walking with its front feet in fists
NNehring / Getty Images

Though they have four feet, only the forefront toes have claws on them. Interestingly, when walking, anteaters curl their feet into fistlike balls to keep the claws protected and prevent dulling. Along with their cleverly designed tongues, anteaters use their razor-sharp claws for many purposes. These claws are incredibly dangerous; they are the animal's best defense against attacks.

Big cats, like pumas and jaguars, are anteaters' main predators. When in danger, anteaters stand their ground on their hind legs and use their claws to slash and maim. Anteaters also use their claws to break open insect nests and get the food inside.

3. Anteaters Don't Just Eat Ants

Anteater eating a large termite mound

Westend61 / Getty Images

The average giant anteater eats up to 30,000 ants and termites in a day. They use quick flicking motions to scoop and suck up their food, up to several hundred flicks per minute. However, they do include other items in their daily diets. They have been known to scavenge fruit, bird eggs, an assortment of worms and insects, and even bees. Anteaters don't drink very much and usually get the water they need from their food.

4. Anteaters Have No Teeth

In scientific terms, an animal with no teeth at all is known as an edentate. Sloths and armadillos are edentates, as well.

Their lack of teeth doesn't seem to pose any problems for anteaters, as their tongues and claws do all the work when it comes to foraging. Their snouts also aid the tongue by working like a vacuum to hold onto the insects and inhale them with a sucking motion. Also, because they dine on ants and termites, there's no need for teeth, as there's no tough meat to chew or bite.

5. They Have the Lowest Body Temperature of Any Mammal

When it comes to land-dwelling mammals, the anteater has the lowest body temperature, at approximately 89.6 degrees Fahrenheit. This is likely due to the fact that their main dietary staple has little to no nutritious or energy value despite the large quantities they consume. However, their bodies adapt by conserving energy wherever possible. Anteaters move slowly, sleep most of the day, and use their fur and tails to maintain body heat. It's quite rare to see an anteater engaging in strenuous activity like climbing, running, or swimming for extended periods of time.

6. Female Anteaters Give Birth Standing Up

Giant anteater baby on its mom's back

belizar73 / Getty Images

Anteaters are typically solitary animals, but they do come together during mating season. The males then leave the family while the females continue to live and travel with their offspring for about two years. When it's time to give birth, females deliver in an upright position, using their tail for support. They have only one baby at a time, and the newborns are called pups. Until they are strong enough to walk on their own, pups ride on their mothers' backs. Once they are fully grown and able to survive in the wild, anteaters leave their mothers and go off by themselves.

7. They Are Fast Runners

Most of the time you won't see an anteater move faster than a slow shuffle. Even the ones that spend most of their time among tree branches will never be seen doing more than lounging or crawling at a snail's pace. However, if scared or startled, they can run fairly fast, up to 30 mph. If cornered and unable to run away, anteaters stand up on their back legs and use their front claws to fight. They are also able to swim and climb trees with ease, though it's not as common. In general, the only water they seek is shallow and muddy, to bathe in or cool off in the heat.

8. They Differ Slightly, Depending on the Species

Anteater crawling on mossy in Costa Rica jungle
Michael J. Cohen, Photographer / Getty Images

Under the Vermilingua suborder, there are four distinct types of anteaters. They are the giant anteater, silky anteater, northern tamandua, and southern tamandua. Overall, they are fairly similar in physical appearance and behavior with some slight differences. The giant anteater, which can weigh up to 90 pounds when fully grown, is sometimes called the "ant bear" due to its markings and size. The silky, also known as pygmy, is much smaller and lighter in color. It's the smallest of the four and spends a majority of its time up in trees.

Northern tamanduas, which live in the tropics of Central America, have unmistakable black coloring on their shoulders and torsos and, like the silky, are primarily arboreal. Southern tamanduas can be found in places like Venezuela, Trinidad, and Uruguay. They have similar markings to their Northern relatives and live solitary lives in densely forested areas.

9. The Giant Anteater Is Vulnerable to Extinction

Giant anteater running through golden field with wooden fence

Joe McDonald / Getty Images

Sadly, the giant anteater suffers a great deal at the hands of humans. Classed as vulnerable by the IUCN, South American populations, in particular, have been victimized by the burning of sugar cane plantations. In addition to fatalities and injuries by fire, they are also killed by cars and dogs. "Giant anteaters are hunted for food throughout their distribution, and are additionally hunted as a pest, for pets, or for illegal trade in some parts of their range," the IUCN says.

It's unclear how many giant anteaters remain in the wild, but they are most definitely increasingly "uncommon to rare."

Save the Giant Anteaters

View Article Sources
  1. Miranda, F., A. Bertassoni, A., and A.M. Abba. "Myrmecophaga tridactyla." The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. 2014: e.T14224A47441961. Accessed on 27 July 2022.

  2. Miranda, F., D.A. Meritt, D.G. Tirira, and M. Arteaga. "Cyclopes didactylus." The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. 2014: e.T6019A47440020. Accessed on 27 July 2022.

  3. Miranda, F., A. Fallabrino, M. Arteaga, D.G. Tirira, D.A. Meritt, and M. Superina. "Tamandua tetradactyla." The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. 2014: e.T21350A47442916. Accessed on 27 July 2022.

  4. Ortega Reyes, J., D.G. Tirira, M. Arteaga, and F. Miranda. "Tamandua mexicana." The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. 2014: e.T21349A47442649. Accessed on 27 July 2022.

  5. "Giant Anteater." San Diego Zoo.