Anteaters comprise the taxonomic suborder Vermilingua. There are four living species of three genera (Myrmecophaga, Tamandua and Cyclopes). All are insect-eating mammals indigenous to tropical savannas and forests of Central and South America. Ranging from southern Mexico to Paraguay and northern Argentina, anteaters are long-tailed animals with elongated skulls and narrow, tubular muzzles. In the spirit of the taxonomic grouping previously known as ‘edentates,’ they are truly toothless.
The mouth opening of anteaters is small, but large enough to allow the animal’s worm-like tongue to project outward over extraordinary lengths. In the giant anteater this can be as long as 60 cm (24 inches). Equipped with large salivary glands that produce viscous saliva, anteaters prey mainly upon on ants and termites.
Large, strong forelimbs armed with curved claws aid anteaters in their pursuit of food. They tear open insect nests with their formidable front feet and insert their sticky tongues deep inside to extract their prey. These long, sharp claws are also used for defense. Using their tails for balance, anteaters can rear up and slash out at their opponents, almost as if they were bipedal.
Anteaters are primarily solitary in nature. Pairs (generally consisting of mother and offspring) are sometimes seen. With the exception of the giant anteaters, species of this taxon have strong arboreal tendencies.
All four recognized species of anteater have historically been housed in AZA zoos. The PAX TAG has focused on establishing sustainable populations of the giant anteater (Mymecophaga tridactyla) and the southern tamandua (Tamandua tetradactyla), both of which are yellow SSP programs. Neither the silky anteater (Cyclopes didactylus, which has had very poor survivability under human care) nor the northern, or Mexican, tamandua (Tamandua mexicana, which is very similar to T. tetradactyla) has ever been widely held. There are no plans to expand upon the numbers of these latter two species in AZA zoos.
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