Feeding ecology and diet

Anteaters are specialized to feed on formidable insects. Very few mammals would consider feeding on invertebrates that are capable of defending themselves with powerful jaws, a potent sting, prickly armor, and in some species the ability to shoot acids and toxins at the enemy. The feeding strategy of anteaters is to lick up as many ants and termites as possible, as quickly as possible. The insect attack quickly becomes unbearable. In fact, an anteater spends only about a

A giant anteater (Myrmecophaga tridactyla) looks for insects in a termite hill. (Photo by F. Brian Erize. Bruce Coleman, Inc. Reproduced by permission.)
A giant anteater (Mymecophaga tridactyla) extending its tongue. (Photo by John H. Hoffman. Bruce Coleman, Inc. Reproduced by permission.)

minute at a typical nest before it must move on to another. These animals must feed on thousands of ants and termites each day to satisfy their caloric requirements. For example, a giant anteater may visit close to 200 ant and termite nests a day in order to get enough food. Anteaters feed on many different species of ants and termites, both terrestrial and arbo-

Silky anteaters (Cyclopes didactylus) grooming, in Ecuador. (Photo by Animals Animals ©Juan Manuel Renjifo. Reproduced by permission.)

real; however, the bulk of their diet is composed of only a few species. Each anteater species has specific insect preferences, depending on the locality in which it is found. Anteaters also practice resource partitioning. The species of insects upon which they feed depends on ant and termite nest construction and the location of that nest. Some ant and termite species are arboreal and only found on small branches, making them inaccessible to large anteater species. Others have a hard covering on the nest making it impenetrable to smaller anteater species.

An anteater's tongue is darted in and out very quickly and is covered with thousands of tiny hooks known as filiform papillae. These hooks help to grasp insects. Large quantities of saliva also help to hold the insects until they reach the mouth. Slight side to side movements of the jaws aid in moving the tongue and swallowing. The stomach of an anteater is specialized to aid in digestion much like the gizzard of a bird. The stomach has hardened folds and uses strong contractions as well as small bits of ingested sand and dirt to grind the insects.

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