A young tamandua gazes at the camera with a wet nose.

Tamandua or Lesser Anteater

Tamandua tetradactyla, T. mexicana
  • 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 mammal 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 wildlife 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.


Tamandua claws help them to climb rainforest trees.
Tamandua claws help them to climb rainforest trees.

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 thick hair keeps angry ants from reaching the tamandua’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 tamandua 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.


Tamandua baby holding onto its mother's back.
A tamandua baby uses its claws to hold onto its mother's back.

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.


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.

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7.6 years median life expectancy


Gestation: 5 months

Number of young at birth: 1

Weight at birth: 13.3 ounces (380 grams)

Age of maturity: 1.5 years


Length: 1.8 to 2.9 feet (53 to 88 centimeters)

Tail length: 1.3 to 1.9 feet (40 to 59 centimeters)

Weight: 4.5 to 17 pounds (2.1 to 7.7 kilograms)



At 91 degrees Fahrenheit (33 degrees Celsius), tamanduas have one of the lowest body temperatures of any active land mammal.

One tamandua's stomach was found to contain more than 1 pound (0.45 kilograms) of ants.

A smelly scent gives tamanduas the nickname "stinkers of the forest." They can spray a foul-smelling secretion said to be four times more powerful than a skunk's!


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