Tamandua mexicananorthern tamandua

Geographic Range

Northern tamanduas are found in Central and South America, from southeastern Mexico south throughout Central America, and in South America west of the Andes from northern Venezuela to northern Peru. (Emmons, 1990; Nowak, 1991)


Northern tamanduas live in many different habitats from mature and secondary rainforests and plantations to gallery forests and arid savannas. Tamanduas forage both on the ground and in the canopy of the forest. They are most common beside streams and trees with abundant vines and epiphytes, perhaps because these trees are more likely to house ant and termite nests. When they are not active, they rest in hollow trees, burrows of other animals, or natural shelters. In the Republic of Panama, northern tamanduas are often spotted swimming between islands. (Emmons, 1990; Macdonald, 1984; Nowak, 1991; Primate Refuge and Sanctuary of Panama, 2001)

Physical Description

Tamandua mexicana is much smaller than giant anteaters (Myrmecophaga tridactyla). Head and body length ranges from 470 to 770 mm and tail length from 402 to 672 mm. Northern tamanduas are fawn to brownish colored and have a distinct, black "V" going down their backs. One of their names, vested anteaters, is derived from this "V" as it makes the anteater appear to be wearing a vest. Northern tamanduas always have this vivid, black "vest" on their trunk that continues from the shoulders to the rump. Southern tamanduas, northern tamandua's closest relative, only has this "V" in some specimens from the southeastern portion of their range, the part of their range which is farthest from the range of northern tamanduas. Sometimes the two species can only be distinguished by characters of the skull. (Emmons, 1990; Nowak, 1991)

Pelage of T. mexicana is short, coarse, dense, and very bristly. The mouth opening is only about the diameter of a pencil, but the tongue can extend 40 cm. The tail is naked and prehensile, with irregular, black markings. On each hand there are four clawed digits. These claws range from 4 to 10 cm in length and are used for defense and slashing open termite and ant nests. The claw on the third digit is the longest, and the claw on the first digit is the smallest. The feet each have five clawed digits. The ears are large and protruding, but the eyes are very small. (Emmons, 1990; Macdonald, 1984; Nowak, 1991)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • sexes alike
  • Range mass
    2 to 7 kg
    4.41 to 15.42 lb
  • Average basal metabolic rate
    5.124 W


Little is known of reproduction in northern tamanduas. They mate in the fall and give birth to a single young in the spring. Births of twins have also been recorded. Females are polyestrous, with a gestation period of either 130 to 150 days or 160 to 190 days. Mothers carry their young on their back or flanks. They will set their young on a tree branch when feeding. Young stay with their mother for about a year before dispersing. (Emmons, 1990; Macdonald, 1984; Nowak, 1991)

  • Breeding interval
    Northern tamanduas breed once yearly.
  • Breeding season
    Northern tamanduas breed in the fall.
  • Range number of offspring
    1 to 1
  • Range gestation period
    130 to 190 days
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    1 years
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    1 years

Tamandua females carry, protect, and nurse their young until they are weaned. Young tamanduas also remain with their mother until they have reached about one year old. (Macdonald, 1984; Nowak, 1991)

  • Parental Investment
  • altricial
  • pre-fertilization
    • provisioning
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-hatching/birth
    • provisioning
      • female
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-weaning/fledging
    • provisioning
      • female
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-independence
    • protecting
      • female



Northern tamanduas are mainly arboreal. They spend more than half their time in trees, many of which are hollow. However, they move, feed, and rest on the ground as well. They cannot gallop on the ground, like giant anteaters, but can move on the ground with a stiff-legged, clumsy gait. They walk on the outside of their hands to avoid sticking their large claws into their palms.

They are solitary animals that communicate by hissing sounds and a very potent odor produced from the anal gland. As a result, they are sometimes referred to as "stinker of the forest."

They may be nocturnal or diurnal and are active for about eight hours at a time. (Emmons, 1990; Macdonald, 1984; Nowak, 1991)

Communication and Perception

Northern tamanduas use their sense of smell extensively to find food. Like most mammals, they probably also use chemical cues in communication.

Food Habits

Northern tamanduas are specialized to eat termites and ants. Since they are mostly arboreal, northern tamanduas eat mostly ants and termites that nest in the trees. They detect their prey by scent. They have developed an aversion to leaf-eating ants, army ants, and other ants that produce chemical defenses. They also can tell the difference between different castes in the termite society. They will not eat soldiers of certain noxious termites, but will search out the defenseless workers of the same species and eat them. Northern tamanduas have also been seen eating bees and their honey. In captivity they will eat fruit and meats.

Tamandua mexicana individuals on Barro Colorado Island were estimated to eat more than 9,000 ants per day.

Since they lack teeth, their stomach is portioned to include a muscular gizzard, much like that of some birds. Their tongue is coated with a sticky saliva and backward facing projections that ensnare the ants and termites.

When they eat, they noisily rip and tear insect nests and rotten wood apart. At night, sounds of tearing wood will often lead to a northern tamandua. (Emmons, 1990; Macdonald, 1984; Nowak, 1991; Primate Refuge and Sanctuary of Panama, 2001)

  • Animal Foods
  • insects


If northern tamanduas are in a tree and are attacked by a predator, they protect themselves by getting into a tripod position that is formed by the back legs and tail. They stretch their arms out and thrash their formidable claws at the enemy. If they are attacked while they are on the ground, they protect their back by leaning against a tree or rock and grab their enemy with their strong arms. Either way, their protection is their strong forearms and the shearing power of their claws. Northern tamanduas may be preyed on by jaguars, large snakes, and eagles. (Macdonald, 1984; Nowak, 1991)

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

Northern tamanduas control populations of ants and termites which may potentially damage crops and orchards. (Nowak, 1991)

  • Positive Impacts
  • controls pest population

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

No known negative affects of northern tamanduas on humans.

Conservation Status

Northern tamandua populations are not currently considered at risk. However, populations throughout most of their range may be impacted by habitat destruction. (Emmons, 1990; Nowak, 1991)


Tanya Dewey (editor), Animal Diversity Web.

Andria Harrold (author), Bethel College.



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

World Map


uses sound to communicate


young are born in a relatively underdeveloped state; they are unable to feed or care for themselves or locomote independently for a period of time after birth/hatching. In birds, naked and helpless after hatching.


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.


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.


offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).


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


rainforests, both temperate and tropical, are dominated by trees often forming a closed canopy with little light reaching the ground. Epiphytes and climbing plants are also abundant. Precipitation is typically not limiting, but may be somewhat seasonal.


Referring to something living or located adjacent to a waterbody (usually, but not always, a river or stream).

scrub forest

scrub forests develop in areas that experience dry seasons.

seasonal breeding

breeding is confined to a particular season


remains in the same area


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


lives alone


uses touch to communicate


Living on the ground.


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.


Emmons, L. 1990. Neotropical Rainforest Mammals: A Field Guide. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.

Macdonald, D. 1984. The Encyclopedia of Mammals. Andromeda Oxford Unlimited.

Nowak, R. 1991. Walker's Mammals of the World: Fifth Edition, Volume 1. Baltimore, Maryland: The John Hopkins University Press.

Primate Refuge and Sanctuary of Panama, 2001. "Fauna of the Islas Tigre and Islas Brujas" (On-line). Accessed April 23, 2001 at www.fsu.edu/~cppanama/ipsp/fauna.htm.