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Pygmy Anteaters Look Like Small, Dusty Puppets Brought to Life

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Adorable. Credit: iStockPhoto

I heard you’re looking for a new favourite animal. Look no further, this is your guy.

At just 35 centimetres long – which includes a 20-cm-long tail – and weighing no more than 500 grams, the pygmy anteater (Cyclopes didactylus) is the smallest anteater on Earth. Nocturnal and committed to a life spent entirely in the trees, this hard-to-spot heartbreaker is the least studied species of a group of mammals known as the Xenarthans, which includes anteaters, sloths and armadillos.

Also known as silky anteaters, pygmy anteaters are found in the thick, tropical forests of Central and South America, their range stretching from southern Mexico to Brazil. Their global population has been split in two by the Andes, and this long-term separation has seen the northern population develop a lovely golden pelt, while their southern relatives have taken on a more greyish hue with a dark stripe running down their backs. Separated even further still is a tiny population in the Atlantic Forest of coastal northeastern Brazil, some 1000 kilometres away from the rest of their species. While it’s not clear how many individuals this population holds, the desert-dry Caatinga region of Brazil has made contact with the main population unlikely, and deforestation is quickly putting their continued existence at risk. Despite similar habitat loss, wildfires, population fragmentation and the illegal pet trade, the main population of pygmy anteaters is doing much better, for now.

It might look like it’s waving to us up there, but that cute display is likely a defensive one. Pygmy anteaters use their two ginormous, curved claws to fasten themselves to the trees as they feed and move about, their prehensile tails providing extra support. Those claws are also super-handy for ripping open ant nests – no prizes for guessing what their favourite meal is, they eat about 5,000 of them per day. Pygmy anteaters also use their claws to defend themselves against predators, because as if you wouldn’t. When threatened, they’ll hang off a branch with their tails and cover their faces with their claws. If that doesn’t work, they’ll lean forward and pounce at their attackers, hoping to puncture some part of them with their claws. That’s pretty optimistic thinking though, pygmy anteaters are extremely slow, so often fall prey to large, predatory birds if spotted.

Prevention is always better than claw stabs, so pygmy anteaters keep themselves out of sight during the day by curling themselves up into a perfect ball in the trees, about 20 metres above the ground, atop a tightly packed nest of dry leaves.

Xenarthrans belong to a taxonomic superorder called Xenarthra, which means “strange joints”. It’s a fitting name, because the vertebrae of anteaters, sloths and armadillos have special articulations known as xenarthrales, which help to reinforce their backs. These little articulations are unlike anything found in any other type of mammal. The tongues of anteaters are also entirely unique. The giant anteater’s (Myrmecophaga tridactyla) tongue can stretch up on 60 cm out of its mouth 150 times per minute. This allows it to consume 30,000 ants every day.

Here’s a video of a pygmy anteater moving around with a baby on its back, looking like a strange dusty puppet:

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Bec Crew About the Author: Bec Crew is a Sydney-based science writer and award-winning blogger. She is the author of 'Zombie Tits, Astronaut Fish and Other Weird Animals' (NewSouth Press). Follow on Twitter @BecCrew.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. Wayne Williamson 5:50 pm 05/22/2014

    Very cool. It looks like it was smelling out ant trails at the end of the video(maybe just imagining).

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  2. 2. Halbred 12:14 pm 05/23/2014

    That baby looks as big as it’s momma! Super cute animals, for sure. I wonder what their dentition is like.

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  3. 3. John Scanlon FCD 7:30 am 06/8/2014

    Like the giant anteater and the middle-sized member of the group (tamandua), they don’t do dentition. Back in the Triassic, there was a reptile we call Drepanosaurus that was pretty similar in size, body shape etc, with huge claws on its hands plus one on the end of its tail. The best specimen is missing its head but close relatives have very bird-like skulls (though with numerous tiny teeth instead of a beak); there doesn’t seem to be evidence for a super-long projectile tongue but it would make sense.

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