Anteaters

An anteater, of the suborder Vermilingua (meaning 'worm tongue'). is the collective name for a group of four Neotropical species of toothless, insect-eating mammals that have elongated skulls and tubular snouts. The group consists of the Giant Anteater, the Tamandua (a Northern and Southern variety) and the rarely seen nocturnal Silky (Pygmy) Anteater.  

 

If you visit the Southern Pantanal you stand a reasonable chance of seeing the king of them all, the Giant Anteater and, if you’re up and out early enough, there’s also a possibility that you could encounter a Southern Tamandua. I’ve been lucky enough to have seen and photographed both species.

Giant Anteater  [Myrmecophaga tridactyla]

 

Sometimes called the Ant Bear, this large mammal, which is only found in certain parts of Central and South America, can grow to over 2m long from snout to tail. Giant Anteaters are solitary and spend most of the day asleep, being most active during the late afternoon and early evening when it’s cooler. They are strange looking animals, with their length roughly divided into three equal portions – the long snout, the body, and the bushy tail.

Giant Anteater  [Myrmecophaga tridactyla]  |  Barranco Alto, Southern Pantanal

 

They have poor eyesight and hearing, but an exceptionally strong sense of smell, which means that you have to pay very careful attention to the wind direction in order to approach them. Their snout houses an impressive sticky tongue, which can measure up to 50cm long. They spend all their time on the ground, foraging in open areas feeding primarily on ants and termites. They break into termite mounds and ant nests using their strong hooked front claws - after making a small entrance, they’ll insert their long snout and then use their extendable tongue, which will flick in and out to suck up their meal. This process will continue until such time as enough termites or soldier ants have bitten the snout, eventually forcing the anteater to retreat and find another nest. Individuals range over quite a large territory and at some point will come back to termite mounds and ant nests that they’ve previously attacked but, by being forced away, the nests are preserved and rebuilt, which means the cycle can continue. Giant Anteaters rely heavily on their strong front claws and, as such, protect them by walking on their ankles.

Giant Anteater  [Myrmecophaga tridactyla]  |  Barranco Alto, Southern Pantanal

Giant Anteater  [Myrmecophaga tridactyla] |   Baia das Pedras, Southern Pantanal

 

They are not rare in the Pantanal, but all the same you are lucky to see them in daylight. We've been pretty fortunate as we saw three different individuals during our first visit to the Pantanal in 2013, five when we returned in 2015 and an incredible ten different individuals during our latest trip in 2018 including a close encounter with a mother and her baby.

Giant Anteater  [Myrmecophaga tridactyla]  |  Barranco Alto, Southern Pantanal

 

The Giant anteater's conservation status is categorised as ‘vulnerable’ on the IUCN Red List of ‘threatened species’.

 

Southern Tamandua  [Tamandua tetradactyla]

 

Also known as the Collared or Lesser Anteater, the Southern Tamandua, has a range similar to that of its big cousin the Giant Anteater, which is from Venezuela down to northern Argentina. They are excellent climbers and as such are equally at home in the trees as on the ground.

Southern Tamandua  [Tamandua tetradactyla]  |  Barranco Alto, Southern Pantanal

 

They are solitary and mainly nocturnal, only coming down from where they’ve been sleeping in the trees to feed. If you're lucky you may see one in the early morning. We saw one on our first trip to the Pantanal in 2013 and another in 2015. 

Southern Tamandua  [Tamandua tetradactyla]  |  Barranco Alto, Southern Pantanal

Southern Tamandua  [Tamandua tetradactyla]  |  Barranco Alto, Southern Pantanal

 

They will feed on ants and termites, including arboreal termite mounds and bee nests in trees. They have strong front claws, which allow them to rip open wood and nests to get at their prey. Similar to the Giant Anteater, they have small eyes and poor eyesight, but a good sense of smell. They forage with their snout to the ground, but sometimes if they feel threatened or sense possible danger they will occasionally raise themselves up on their hind legs and sway their forelimbs from side to side. Witnessing this behavior and being in a relatively good position for a photograph was one of our 2015 trip highlights as it provided me with some different shots of this rather special and somewhat elusive animal.

Southern Tamandua  [Tamandua tetradactyla]  |  Barranco Alto, Southern Pantanal

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