Walking through the cool rainforest, we suddenly felt like we were being watched, and we stood still. The air smelled like damp earth because it had been raining. As we looked around, our eyes settled on two curious-looking creatures. A pair of tamanduas had ambled down out of the vine-tangled trees and stood up to get a better look at us.
Perhaps we looked as strange to them as they did to us.
Image license CC SA 3.0 by Jacob R. Barnett via Wikimedia Commons
Their curiosity satisfied, the whimsical pair returned to the cover of the trees. However, my husband and I smiled at each other. We had come to Costa Rica for its beautiful rainforests, and we were not disappointed.
The Tamandua Is Costa Rica’s Natural Pest Control
If evolution was sentient, if it was a breathing thing, it might have had a case of the giggles when tamanduas came into being.
However, the tamandua is not evolution’s practical joke. There’s evidence to suggest that tamanduas in their present form have been climbing trees for millions of years, possibly after diverging from their cousin, the giant anteater (Myrmecophaga tridactyla) in the Miocene, nearly 13 million years ago, AboutAnimals reports. There are two species — the northern tamandua (Tamandua Mexicana) and the southern (Tamandua tetradactyla.)
Here’s The Tamandua’s Larger Cousin Below:
Image license CC SA 2.0 by Dan Sloan via Wikimedia Commons
Anteaters are quite the whimsical-looking animals, with their long snouts and clawed hands, and in tamanduas, that long, prehensile tail and backward-facing brownish-black fuzzy vest. This means they are rather sophisticated creatures in the family Myrmecophagidae, which is part of the order Pilosa, an order that also includes sloths.
But where sloths prefer leaves, tamanduas and their anteater relatives love them some ants and termites, they do. While sloths have a few teeth, anteaters have none. Zero. Nada. Zilch, TheNightTour reports. Couple that with a mouth that can only open about as wide as a pencil and you might think they would have trouble getting a decent meal.
You’d be wrong, however.
Anteaters Are The Gunslingers of the Insectivore World
They make up for this with a highly specialized tongue that’s quite powerful. Attached to the creature’s breastbone, covered in hooks and rolled neatly in the back of the skull, the giant anteater can fire that tongue 150 times per minute.
The same is true for the northern tamandua whose spiky, sticky; noodly spaghetti tongue can be up to 40 cm (almost 16 inches) long. And when they are looking for a meal, they can rip into an ant or termite mound the way some people might rip into a hamburger. When Northern tamanduas were studied on Barro Colorado Island (which is smack in the middle of the Panama Canal), estimates showed they scarfed up as many as 9,000 ants per day.
Perhaps most fittingly, the name Tamandua comes from the language of the Tupi Indians: “Taa” meaning ant and “Mandeu” meaning trap.
The Tamandua Nose Knows
Another surprising fact about tamanduas is that they can smell ant and termite mounds. They are even a little particular about whom they eat. They don’t like leaf-eating ants or army ants, or any other ants that produce chemical defenses. And when it comes to termites, they will avoid “soldiers” of certain species that also produce chemical defenses, lapping up the defenseless “workers” instead. They have also been known to eat bees, and they love honey.
Watch this hungry northern tamandua making short work of an ant nest in the video below:
While they live most of their lives in the trees, tamanduas also spend plenty of time on the ground. They can’t exactly run, thanks to those dagger-like claws, but they can get around with a rather stiff-legged gait by walking on the outsides of their hands. Which keeps those claws from stabbing the palms of their hands.
Unlike the giant anteater, which can weigh as much as 120 pounds, tamanduas are relatively small, weighing only about 4.2 kg (just over nine pounds.) Typically they have a head and body length of 470 mm to 770 mm (18 to 30 inches.) Then there’s that wraparound tail, which measures about 402 mm to 672 mm (15 to 26 inches.)
Is there trouble ahead for the tamandua?
Northern tamanduas are not considered endangered at this time, and the IUCN Redlist of Threatened Species has ranked the species in the “least concern” category. Despite this, tamanduas are dealing with deforestation all across the areas where they range, which extends from southeastern Mexico, throughout Central America and well into South America.
Image license CC SA 3.0 by Chermundy via the IUCN Redlist of Threatened Species/Spatial Data/Wikimedia Commons
And tragically, the Giant Anteater used to be found in Costa Rica, but it has been extirpated here.
Tamandua Reproductive Habits
Very little is known about the mating habits of these creatures. We do know they mate in the rainy season (right around Fall in North America) and generally have only one offspring, which is born in the Spring.
And Tamandua Babies Are Incredibly Cute
Image by Brave Wilderness via YouTube video
Females generally carry their little ones on their backs but will deposit them on a nearby branch from time to time while they are feeding. A young tamandua usually stays with its mother for a year.
Since tamanduas have such a marvelous sense of smell, you’d think we’d have at least a couple around the yard. We certainly have more ants and termites than we need. Wish I could rent a few of these cute critters.
The video below features the adorable baby tamandua from the photo above. Enjoy!
Featured image CC SA 2.0 by Katja Schulz via Wikimedia Commons
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