The Allure of Anteaters: Attracting Increased Attention from Scientists and the General Public Alike, These Endearing Creatures Are "Ambassadors" for Wildlife Conservation and Research

Article excerpt

Jim Shaw was a man on a mission that warm, sunny afternoon in Serra da Canastra National Park in Brazil. The biologist, his colleagues, and assistants were pursuing a giant anteater, one of a half dozen or so visible amid the tall grasses and scrub bushes on the Brazilian cerrado. Unwilling to dart the anteater with a tranquilizer gun for fear of injuring the animal, Shaw and his team used long sticks to pin the critter down while staying away from its dangerous forearms and claws.

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That giant anteater was one of 75 or so that the scientists caught and outfitted with radio collars during a three-year study of anteater ecology and behavior. Shaw, now a professor of wildlife biology at Oklahoma State University, wanted to know how many anteaters lived in that part of the Brazilian savannah, how they interacted with others of their own kind, and what they are. At the time. in the late 1970s and early 1980s, little was known about anteaters. Although somewhat better understood today--thanks to research by Shaw and other US and Brazilian scientists--anteaters are still one of the most understudied and least known animals in the Americas.

What is known about anteaters paints the critters as among the world's strangest animals. Consider the following: With a small head and mouth and elongated snout, they look funny. By walking on the insides of their feet, which protects their claws from wear and tear, they have an awkward gait. Feeding on ants and termites, they have a weird diet. And, perhaps befitting animals that eat insects, they have a lower body temperature and metabolism rate than any other mammal of their size. They even have unusual sexual and reproductive organs.

Despite--or maybe because of--all those features, anteaters are also one of the more appealing and beautiful of Latin American animals. Apparently, wildlife biologists, conservationists, zoo curators, and the general public are beginning to think so too. Anteaters are the subject of increasing research by scientists who are extending our knowledge of the animals, attention by conservationists who worry about their future, and interest among zookeepers and zoo visitors alike.

There are four species of anteaters, all native to Central and South America. Giant anteaters, the largest of the bunch, weigh up to 85 pounds and measure four to six feet in length, half of that made up of a long, bushy tail. Striking creatures, they are mostly grayish in color with a black-and-white stripe that runs from the front of the head past the shoulders. Giant anteaters can be found in tropical forests as well as grasslands from Honduras and Guatemala to northern Argentina.

Next come the lesser or collared anteaters. Here, scientists recognize two separate species--northern and southern. Called tamanduas in Central and South America, they are less than half the size of their giant cousins. Their coloration ranges from mostly brown with a black collar around their back, shoulders, and middle in northern tamanduas to a gold, brown, and white pattern in the southern species. Unlike giant anteaters, which are mostly ground-dwelling animals, tamanduas spend much of their time in trees. They can be found from southern Mexico to Uruguay.

The smallest and least known of the four are the squirrel-sized silky anteaters. Measuring only twelve to nineteen inches long and weighing but ten to seventeen ounces, silky anteaters are rarely seen and little studied. About the only time they are spotted in the wild is when someone cuts down a tree and a silky anteater gets up from the fallen trunk or limbs and walks away. They inhabit the densest tropical forests from southern Mexico to northern Peru and the Amazon basin. Silky anteaters are strictly nocturnal, spending virtually all of their time aloft. Their hair is a golden yellow in the northern parts of their range, but becomes progressively grayer to the south. …