- CLASS: Mammalia (Mammals)
- ORDER: Pilosa
- FAMILY: Myremecophagidae
- GENUS: Tamandua
- SPECIES: tetradactyla (southern tamandua) and mexicana (northern tamandua)
To be a tamandua: A type of anteater, the tamandua (pronounced tuh MAN doo wah) is often called a lesser anteater because it is much smaller than its relative, the giant anteater. This interesting animal is at home both in trees and on the ground. The tamandua is most active at night, often nesting during the day in hollow tree trunks. It has small eyes and poor vision but can hear and smell quite well.
Several potential predators—jaguars and smaller cats like the margay—would love to make a meal out of a tamandua if it weren't so stinky! The bad smell lets other animals know where the tamandua is and usually sends them in the opposite direction. If a predator does get too close, the tamandua may hiss and then release a very unpleasant odor, similar to a skunk's, from a gland at the base of its tail.
The tamandua's powerful forearms and claws can also be used for defense. If it feels threatened while in a tree, the tamandua holds onto a branch with its hind feet and tail so its arms and long claws are free to fight.
HABITAT AND DIET
A tamandua’s strange looks work to its advantage in its Central and South American forest and scrub habitat. It has thick, coarse fur that is light yellow, tan, brown, or gray. The kinky hair keeps angry ants from reaching the animal’s skin when dining at an anthill.
Many also have a large, black band covering the sides of their body or a black "V" going down their back. The enormous front claws help tamanduas climb. They have four toes on the front feet, with an extra-long claw on the third toe. These long claws cause tamanduas to walk on the outside edges of their front feet so the claws don't dig into their feet! The important claws are also used for defense and when digging for food.
A tamandua's prehensile tail comes in handy for spending time in the trees. The underside and end of the tail is hairless, and the tail is used like an extra hand or foot while climbing. A tamandua also uses the tail for balance or like a tripod when needing to stand upright to slash out with the sharp, curved claws. The thick tail also makes a great pillow when sleeping!
A specialized mouth and tongue let tamanduas eat up to 9,000 ants in a single day! Tamanduas don't have teeth to chew their food; instead, their stomach grinds the food after it is swallowed. A 16-inch-long (41 centimeters) sticky tongue with small barbs on it is just right for stealing ants and termites from their home. The tamandua's mouth is only as round as a pencil, but it can also lick up honey and soft, juicy fruits.
A powerful sense of smell helps the animal find a food source, like a termite mound. The tamandua feeds only a short time at each ant nest or termite mound so it won't get many bites. This also helps ensure there are plenty of snacks at the same location the next time!
At the San Diego Zoo and San Diego Zoo Safari Park, the tamandua is fed a high-protein powder mixed with water, as well as honey and fruit as treats.
The normally solitary tamandua looks for a mate in the fall. One baby is born in early spring and is cared for by the mother only. The new baby does not resemble the parents very much, as its coat is a solid color, but its eyes are open, and it has those giant claws. The youngster spends the first part of its life on the mother's back; she places her baby on a safe branch for a short time while she looks for food.
AT THE ZOO
San Diego Zoo Global has had tamanduas off and on over the years, beginning with a pair of northern tamanduas in 1932. We have had one tamandua birth, in 1998.
Currently, the San Diego Zoo has four tamanduas: three females, named Lola, Blanca, and Jamaree; and a male, named Otis. Jamaree is on exhibit in the Children's Zoo. The others live off exhibit but serve as animal ambassadors, meeting Zoo and Safari Park guests up close during animal presentations and making appearances on television. You may see one out on a walk, looking for ants.
Keepers say the tamanduas can tell the different ant species apart by their smell, and they only like to eat certain types! Tamanduas like to climb, too (especially palm trees), so while out on a walk or meeting guests, keepers have to keep their tamandua from getting too close to any trees. Otherwise, our animal ambassador just might grab onto a branch with those mighty forearms, and it would be tough to convince him or her to let go!
Both northern and southern tamanduas are classified as species of least concern, with stable populations. Fortunately, tamanduas are able to adapt to a variety of habitats as needed.
You can help us bring other species back from the brink by supporting the San Diego Zoo Global Wildlife Conservancy. Together we can save and protect wildlife around the globe.