Of the four different anteater species, the giant anteater is by far the largest. Its body can reach lengths of four feet (1.2 m) and it can grow to two feet (0.6 m) long. The giant anteater has an elongated snout and a very bushy tail. The coarse, dense fur that covers its body is mostly dark brown or black but it has white forelegs with black bands around its wrists and a wide band of black fur stretches across its chest and all the way to the middle of its back. This stripe is bordered by a thin line of white, gray or light brown fur. Its tongue is an impressive two feet long, and half an inch wide. It is covered with sticky saliva that helps it to pick up the insects that it eats, including termites and ants. Giant anteaters have large front claws and powerful forelegs that allow them to break open termite mounds in a single swipe and make them a formidable opponent to predators. In a few instances, a giant anteater has killed a puma or jaguar while defending itself against attack.
Their range extends from southern Belize down to northern Argentina. While their territory includes swamps and humid forests, they are mostly seen in grasslands where their termite and ant prey are more readily available. They travel constantly in search of food, careful to only take a small number of insects from each nest to avoid overexploiting the food sources in their home range. [They’re natural conservationists!]
In the wild, giant anteaters consume mostly termites, ants, beetles, larger insect larvae, worms and the occasional fruit. Their long snout and tongue allows them to sniff down into the homes of their main prey and lick them up with ease. When they eat, their tongue shoots out 150 times every minute -- allowing them to easily finish off 30,000 insects in a day.
While giant anteaters are not currently endangered, they have lost much of their population due to hunting and the destruction of their habitat. Scientists estimate that there are only 5,000 individuals left in the wild. These distinctive looking animals have been around for 25 million years and -- with enough habitat protection -- should continue to survive far into the future.