The largest of four anteater species, the giant anteater may be five to seven feet long, from nose to tail, and weigh 40 to 100 pounds. It has a narrow head, long nose, small eyes, and round ears. Its coarse hair may be gray or brown, with a white-banded black stripe running along the body to mid-torso, and a long, bushy tail, which can be two to three feet long. Its front feet have large claws, which are curled under when it walks. It has poor vision but a keen sense of smell.
From southern Belize to northern Argentina
Grassland savannas, swamps, humid forests, and woodlands
The giant anteater detects termite mounds and anthills with its keen sense of smell and tears them open with its strong claws. What we call an anteater's nose is actually an elongated jaw with a small, black, moist nose, like a dog's nose. Giant anteaters have a two-foot-long tongue and huge salivary glands that produce copious amounts of sticky saliva when they feed. Termites, ants, and their eggs stick to the tongue as it flicks in and out and the insects are scraped off by the flexing of the lower jaw and swallowed. Anteaters have a very muscular stomach that grinds up the insects and powerful digestive juices to break down their prey. They may eat as many as 30,000 ants in a day. They will also eat ripe fruit if they find it on the ground.
After a gestation of about six months, a giant anteater will give birth to one offspring, which will be weaned in a few months. The young will ride on its mother's back for up to a year and remain with the mother for up to two years, or until she becomes pregnant.
Giant anteaters are solitary, except for mothers and their young.
The IUCN classifies giant anteaters as near threatened.
Four species of anteaters and six species of sloths form the order Pilosa. Along with armadillos in the order Cingulata, they in the magnorder Xenarthra, which is Greek for "strange joint." The name comes from a feature unique to xenarthrans: special articulations between the vertebrae in the lower back. Animals in this magnorder also have fused pelvic bones and lack incisors and canines. Anteaters are in the suborder of Pilosa called Vermilingua (animals with a worm-like tongue).