Myrmecophagagiant anteater


Diversity within the order Myrmecophaga itself is low and has only one living species and two subspecies. There are two other genera of Anteaters within this order (Gaudin T. 2018). Myrmecophaga belongs to the order Pilosa which includes Anteaters and their most closely related relative, Sloths (Clozato et al. 2017). Within Myrmecophga there are three living subspecies. (Gaudin T. 2018). These subspecies include Myrmecopaga arata, centralis, and tridactyla. However diversity of g. Myrmecophaga is generally low and understudied.

Species diversity and variability are important in the persistence of the Giant Anteater. Lack of genetic diversity makes Myrmecophaga at risk of extinction. Genetic diversity is low due to inbreeding in existing populations (Clozato et al. 2017). No specific haplotypes have been seen between all populations and no more than two haplotypes were shared between three populations of Giant Anteaters (Clozato et al. 2017). One primary difference seen between the subspecies of this genus is individual size. Myrmecophaga tridactyla is significantly larger than the other subspecies. (Clozato, et al., 2017; Gaudin, et al., 2018)

Geographic Range

Habitat ranges are diverse including Argentina, Brazil, Columbia, Venezuela, Ecuador, and South America (Gaudin T. 2018). Species in Argentina have a more restricted distribution in northeastern habitats. Myrmecophaga is a neotropical species that tend to inhabit low elevations (Gaudin T. 2018). Habitat is dependent on available prey species of ants and termites (Gallo et al. 2017). However, ranges used to extend much further than their current territory due to anthropogenic change. Human activity such as urbanization, poaching, and road use has led to the decrease in habitat use of g. Myrmecophaga (Bertassoni et al. 2019). Some of the habitats remaining include Guatemala, Southern Belize, Costa Rica, and the Caribbeans (Gaudin T. 2018). Myrmecophaga have individual territories in which they move around during the day which range from 1,326 to 11,000 m/day. The home ranges overlap with one another regardless of gender with few to no conflicts. However, it is important to know that females are more tolerant of their shared habitat where as males can be more aggressive (Bertassoni et al. 2019). (Bertassoni and Riberio, 2019; Gallo, et al., 2017; Gaudin, et al., 2018)


Myrmecophga occurs in a wide range of habitats including dense forests and open fields (Arnaud et al., 2010). Habitat ranges for Myrmecophaga is highly dependent on food availability. Myrmecophaga are specialists, consuming mainly termites and ants making ideal habitats overlap with those species. Since ants' habitats can range from terrestrial to arboreal, home ranges are diverse (Arnaud et al., 2010). A few preferred habitats include savanna, and grasslands with seasonal flooding (Medri & Mourao, 2005). Higher densities are seen in forest habitats, with some populations favoring edge habitats (Arnaud et al., 2010). It is seen that Myrmecophaga favors areas near lakes as well (Medri & Mourao, 2005). Anteaters were seen to use grassland habitats for more active behavior and rested in areas of savanna and forest habitat with more available cover (Medri & Mourao, 2005). Overall, Myrmecohaga while specialists in their diet can inhabit a wide range of landscapes and are typically more generalists in this aspect (Medri & Mourao, 2005). (Arnaud, et al., 2020; Medri and Mourao, 2005)

Systematic and Taxonomic History

Myrmecophaga is in the Order Pilosa including Sloths and Anteaters making Sloths their closest living relative. They are additionally closely related to Armadillos since they all belong to the superorder Cingulata (Gaudin et al. 2018). Although the giant anteater may not be related to these animals there are still numerous species that show convergent evolution with the Giant Anteater. These species include Aardvark, Echidnas, and Pangolins. These species have similar diets which have evolved with unique characteristics such as their tongue shape and use, they also all see a reduction in teeth and strong powerful forearms (the sloth conservation foundation, 2016). Myrmecophaga is also closely related to two other genera containing three species of anteater, all belonging to the suborder Vermilingua. Additionally, there are three extant subspecies within the genus Myrmecophaga including Myrmecophaga arata, Myrmecophaga centralis, and Myrmecophaga tridactyla. (Gaudin, et al., 2018; The Sloth Conservation Foundation, 2016)

Physical Description

Myrmecophaga is a quadrupedal mammal with a large bushy tail. This genus is easily distinguishable from other Anteaters by its notably large body size. Myrmecophaga shows plantigrade body posture when on its hind feet and is seen to prefer knucklewalking while on all four of its limbs (Gaudin et al. 2018)

Myrmecophaga has modified dentition specialized for eating ants and termites (Naples, 1999). Diet has caused them to have a long extended snout with minimal dentition. There are no bones in the jaws of the mouth, but instead, there are long dentary bones further back (Gaudin et al. 2018). Musculature on the jaw is also greatly reduced. This specialized feeding also affects the digestive structure, metabolic rate, and locomotor function of anteaters. The giant anteater's tongue is two feet long and coated in sticky saliva. The long tongue is concealed in a protruding snout with a highly developed smell (Smithsonian Zoo, 2022).

The coat of Myrmecophaga varies in shades of brown with a wide black stripe up the legs toward the back, the texture of which is short and bristly similar to horsehair (Smithsonian Zoo, 2022). Mymecophaga has long claws on the forepaws with shorter bearlike paws on the back. The paw has 5 claws which round in a curve shape around the pads of the paw. The forelimb of this genus has increased musculature which is almost twice the size of the hind legs (Gaudin et al. 2018). All these characteristics have evolved over time mainly due to their specialized diet. (Gaudin, et al., 2018; Naples, 1999; Smithsonian National Zoo, 2022)


Myrmecophaga is a solitary organism and is rarely seen together outside of reproduction (Miranda et al, 2014). Very little information is known about the behavior of the Giant Anteater in the wild. However, it has been seen that males will try to push the females down to the ground several times before trying to mount them from behind. Females that are carrying babies are more prone to defend themselves from male attempts and show some levels of aggression. This is often shown through verbal snarls while showing some aggressive or avoidant behavior (Miranda et al, 2014). The Giant Anteater is polygynous where males will attempt to copulate with many females. (Miranda and Bertassoni, 2014)

Myrmecophaga is a non-seasonal breeder and will give birth at any point of the year. It has been seen that the Giant Anteater will return to its area of birth to breed (Gaudin et al. 2018). The gestation period for Myrmecophaga ranges from 180-to 190 days (Patzl et al., 1998). Female behavior does not change during times of estrous and lasts for around 50 days (Maronezi et al., 2020). Mating can also occur at any point in the year even during pregnancy and can happen until females give birth. Mating behavior consists of back and forth vocalization similar to a snarl (Miranda et al., 2014). Some studies show aggressive behavior towards males when females are still caring for offspring but show less aggressive behavior is seen when alone (Miranda at al., 2014). Consistent behavior showing roaring, circling, and other vocalizations were noted during copulation (Miranda at al., 2014). Once the organisms reproduce the males will move on and the individuals will be solitary until the pup comes when the mother will then care for the pup without help from the male Anteater. (Gaudin, et al., 2018; Patzl, et al., 1998)

Myrmecophaga gives birth to a single pup at a time with high mortality rates in the first two days of life (Maia O.,2002). After birth, the mother will have to care for the pup for 6-9 months carrying the young on her back for the duration, and nursing for up to six months (Maia O.,2002). Some individuals have been seen leaving their pups in a nest so they may go off and forage along. Mothers in Myrmecophaga invest a lot of energy into caring for their young, they have shown behavior such as licking, playing, grooming, and even stimulation to help the pup defecate (Maia O.,2002). Mothers were not seen to show any aggression toward the young while parental investment is needed. The young can stay with the mother for up to two years and will slowly gain independence over that time until becoming solitary individuals (Smithsonian 2022). (Smithsonian National Zoo, 2022)


Information on the life span of Myrmecophaga is minimal but captive individuals have been seen to live 25-30 years. It has been noted that wild individuals can live up to 15 years (Gaudin et al. 2018). The Giant Anteater will stay with its mother for up to 2 years before becoming independent and will remain solitary throughout its life with some socialization during reproduction. Sexual maturity is then reached at 3-4 years old (Smithsonian 2022). (Gaudin, et al., 2018; Smithsonian National Zoo, 2022)


Myrmecophaga is a quadrupedal terrestrial organism with the ability to climb and live somewhat arboreal (Gaudin et al. 2018). Myrmecophaga is a solitary organism, breeding seasons are the exception. The Giant Anteater can be seen both at night and during the day, but feed primarily during the night (Gallo et al., 2017). Activity is seen to be dependent on daily temperatures. The Giant Anteater spends the majority of its time foraging for invertebrates mainly termites and ants. Within a single day Myrmecophaga can consume up to 35,000 ants, although this quantity depends on several factors including range. Individuals were seen to consume more termites during drier times of the year. However Mymecophaga may only feed for 38 seconds at each insect nest to avoid chemical or physical defenses. During the breeding season, males have been seen to display competitive behavior including fighting. The giant anteater has been seen using its large fluffy tail to conserve heat when temperatures are low, additionally, they have been noted to bathe when temperatures are high. It is believed that they may also bathe to rid their bodies of residual insects. Overall, the Giant Anteater are docile and spend the majority of their time eating and traveling throughout their territory. (Gallo, et al., 2017; Gaudin, et al., 2018)

Communication and Perception

Myrmecophaga is generally a not aggressive species and will avoid threats if possible. When necessary to defend themselves the Giant Anteater will rear up to their hind legs using their large tail for balance this rearing also acts as a signal to other Anteaters and organisms to back away. They will use their front paws equipped with large claws to defend themselves if necessary. Mymecophaga has been seen to have a conflict between males, especially during a mating season when they will show a series of behavior. This includes; grunting, circling, clawing, and overall antagonizing one another in order to fight for the female of interest (Smithsonian 2022). Although their paws were evolved to allow earlier feeding and climbing they are also ideal for fighting interaction. Since territory overlaps for this species there are some defensive behaviors. It has been seen in captive individuals that while walking together the giant anteater walks single file with one another (Beryassoni, Costa, 2010). Other than these several forms of communication or defense and reproduction the Giant Anteater does not communicate with other organisms often since they are generally solitary organisms. (Bertassoni and Milleo Costa, 2010; Smithsonian National Zoo, 2022)

Food Habits

Myrmecophaga feeds primarily on ants and termites. Ants are easy and reliable prey due to their vast dispersion and vast numbers (Gallo et al, 2017). Myrmecophaga are highly specialized in their jaw and tongue formations, which also limits their diet to ants and termites. However, the Giant Anteater is not only able to feed on insects terrestrially but they are able to use their back paws and stand up to reach higher vegetation. Myrmecophaga is seen to feed primarily during the night (Gallo et al, 2017). A large portion of the Giant Anteater's energy is spent on foraging and consuming insects. Myrmecophaga will also consume various Coleoptera and Isoptera species while foraging in woody plants. The diet of Myrmecophaga indicates a large habitat range and nomadic behavior which is consistent with the home range and general behavior of the Giant Anteater. (Gallo, et al., 2017)


One major threat to the Giant Anteater are humans who hunt them for food (Nat. Geo., 2022). In the wild, the Giant Anteater's natural predators are Pumas and Jaguars. Mymrmecophaga protects themselves from predators with their forelimbs and large claws (Natural History, 2021). Individuals when threatened will stand on their hindlimbs and use their large tails as a balance and will protect themselves using their large claws. Myrmecophaga also has defenses against their prey species, Termite and ants have both morphological and chemical defenses against predators like the anteater. In response, the giant anteater has developed some adaptations to avoid getting injured while feeding. Some of these adaptations include large claws to open the nest, a long tubular tongue, and sticky saliva (Cunha et al., 2014). (Cunha, et al., 2014; National Geographic, 2022; National History Notebooks, 2021)

  • Known Predators
    • Jaguars
    • Pumas

Ecosystem Roles

The Giant Anteater is a prey species that provide food for Jaguars and Pumas (natural history, 2021). Additionally Myrmecophaga influences the environment by increasing habitat type and use (Blanco, 2015). Anteaters also act as good indicators of ecosystem health since they are specialized in their diet, but inhabit a broad range of habitats. They are also good indicators of conservation and protection efforts (Blanco 2015). One of the main roles the Giant Anteater plays in the ecosystem is pest control since they consume such a large amount of insects. (Blanco, et al., 2015; National History Notebooks, 2021)

  • Ecosystem Impact
  • creates habitat

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

Myrmecophaga provides some communities with meat and fur. However, the main role they play is in pest control. Since insects are their main source of food they play an important role in maintaining insect populations. This in return helps farmers in these regions with reducing pests (Beretz, 2020). Even considering their consumption of insects the Giant Anteater does not provide benefits to people directly through an ecosystem service. (Beretz, 2020)

  • Positive Impacts
  • body parts are source of valuable material
  • controls pest population

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

Unfortunately, the main harm Giant Anteater cause to people is traffic accidents and roadkill events. Since the Giant Anteater has small eyes with poor vision and is slow-moving they are more likely to be killed by moving vehicles (Beretz, 2020). When vehicles come in contact with animals they can injure or even kill those in the vehicles. It has also caused further accidents due to people trying to avoid hitting the organism. Although uncommon it is possible that the Giant Anteater can kill a person if threatened in the wild (Haddad et al., 2014). Since Myrmecophaga are equipped with large claws on the forelimbs and stand on their hindlimb when threaten they can pose a large threat to people, however, they are not very confrontational and will mostly avoid people. There are some documented cases of Anteaters attaching people when they feel like their habitat range is threatened or invaded (Gannon, 2014). (Beretz, 2020; Gannon, 2014)

Conservation Status

Myrmecophaga's IUNC listing status is vulnerable. The main justification for this listing status is due to habitat degradation of their home ranges and death due to anthropogenic effects such as fire and roadkill (Bertaassoni et al, 2010). Myrmecophaga is a sensitive species due to its living behavior and low reproduction rate which increases its susceptibility to declines. Since its original listing in 1982, it has stayed at the status vulnerable until 2006 until 2008 when it was downlisted to near threatened before being listed as vulnerable again. Some efforts being done to conserve the species consist of breeding programs like the one at the Nashville Zoo. These programs help to ensure that if all individuals in the wild were to die we would not lose the species completely and may be able to introduce captive individuals into the wild. These captive individuals also provide us a way of better understanding the Giant Anteater which allows for better management of wild populations. (Bertassoni and Milleo Costa, 2010; Desbiez, 2010; Nashville Zoo, 2022)

  • IUCN Red List [Link]
    Not Evaluated

Other Comments

The Giant Anteater does not have any teeth they just have their sticky long tongue that have tiny spines pointing back toward the throat. The Gaint anteater has a smelling power 40X stronger than a human being. The Giant Anteater can spend as much time as 15 hours a day sleeping. ("Myrmecophaga tridactyla", 2022)


Sarah Jackman (author), Colorado State University, Audrey Bowman (editor), Colorado State University.



living in the southern part of the New World. In other words, Central and South America.

World Map


Referring to an animal that lives in trees; tree-climbing.

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.


an animal that mainly eats meat


uses smells or other chemicals to communicate

  1. active during the day, 2. lasting for one day.

animals that use metabolically generated heat to regulate body temperature independently of ambient temperature. Endothermy is a synapomorphy of the Mammalia, although it may have arisen in a (now extinct) synapsid ancestor; the fossil record does not distinguish these possibilities. Convergent in birds.

female parental care

parental care is carried out by females


union of egg and spermatozoan


forest biomes are dominated by trees, otherwise forest biomes can vary widely in amount of precipitation and seasonality.


An animal that eats mainly insects or spiders.


having the capacity to move from one place to another.

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.


active during the night


an animal that mainly eats all kinds of things, including plants and animals


having more than one female as a mate at one time


remains in the same area


reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female


lives alone

stores or caches food

places a food item in a special place to be eaten later. Also called "hoarding"


uses touch to communicate


defends an area within the home range, occupied by a single animals or group of animals of the same species and held through overt defense, display, or advertisement


the region of the earth that surrounds the equator, from 23.5 degrees north to 23.5 degrees south.

tropical savanna and grassland

A terrestrial biome. Savannas are grasslands with scattered individual trees that do not form a closed canopy. Extensive savannas are found in parts of subtropical and tropical Africa and South America, and in Australia.


A grassland with scattered trees or scattered clumps of trees, a type of community intermediate between grassland and forest. See also Tropical savanna and grassland biome.

temperate grassland

A terrestrial biome found in temperate latitudes (>23.5° N or S latitude). Vegetation is made up mostly of grasses, the height and species diversity of which depend largely on the amount of moisture available. Fire and grazing are important in the long-term maintenance of grasslands.


uses sight to communicate


reproduction in which fertilization and development take place within the female body and the developing embryo derives nourishment from the female.

year-round breeding

breeding takes place throughout the year


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