February is in the dry season in Los Llanos and the locals are somewhat confused by this. Although the country lies entirely north of the equator, they refer to this time of year as “summer.” They call the rainy season “winter” although it actually takes place in the summer. Stepping off the plane into the warm, dry air I gratefully accepted the reverse naming convention. It felt wonderful leave winter behind in
During the summer months the vast marshes of Los Llanos evaporate leaving a plane of grass punctuated by palm trees and dirt roads that form a cobweb of levies. We were driving along one of these roads just before sunset when I spotted my first giant anteater. It looked like a black smudge rising from the sea of green. I almost mistook it for an incongruously placed boulder. Then it moved.
As I clicked off my first few photos, another black smudge appeared. The new one was smaller and slightly closer. I had trouble making out its shape as it barely rose above the tall grass. The more distant anteater stopped, then back-tracked a little. The baby quickly climbed on its mother’s back getting a grip in her long, thick fur. In an instant she was in retreat again.
This was what I wanted to see, the giant anteater, Myrmecophaga tridactyla. The adults are about the size of German Shepard dogs. They look a bit like German Shepards too, except they’re hairier and have very, very long snouts that house their equally elongated tongues. They’re not related to dogs though, except that they’re mammals. And they don’t have big teeth like dogs. In fact, they don’t have any teeth.. They don’t need teeth since their food, which is mainly termites, doesn’t take much crunching.
What they have is impressive claws. They use them both for defense and to rip open termite nests which can be as hard as concrete. Once the nest is opened, the anteater sticks its long snout into the hole. It doesn’t suck up the termites as is popularly believed. Instead it uses its sticky tongue to lap up its prey. Anteaters eat around 30,000 termites each day.
Anteaters belong to the order Edentata, meaning toothless. They are most closely related to sloths and armadillos. Like sloths, they have a very slow metabolism that allows them to thrive on a low energy diet of termites and ants.
I felt pretty lucky to see several giant anteaters on my trip. Our driver even raced one as it ran through the scrub on the side of the road. I got luckier still when we spotted an elusive lesser anteater, Tamandua tetradactyla on a remote dirt road.
About a quarter of the size of its giant relative, the lesser anteater is mainly arboreal. It was fortunate to find one on the ground where it could be easily observed. Carlos, our guide, grabbed the little animal by the tail and temporarily captured it for us to get a closer view. It used its formidable claws to rip Carlos’ camera free from its strap around his neck.
Anteaters are some of the most fascinating and unique animals in the world. The range of all four species is restricted to Central and
Photo: Lesser anteater. Note the big claws and prehensile tail. These anteaters are arboreal.
Photo: Lesser anteater attempting escape.
Photo: Lesser anteater hiding in some brush
Photo: Lesser anteater. The nose isn't as long as in the giant anteater but it's still pretty cute.