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How Anteaters Decide What To Eat

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

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The Giant Anteater, Myrmecophaga tridactyla, only eats ants and termites, as its name suggests. Since the giant anteater and its evolutionary ancestors have been feasting on ants and termites for nearly 60 million years, a researcher named Kent Redford hypothesized that, over time, ants and termites may have evolved various defenses to avoid predation. In other words, there may have been a co-evolution between the feeding preferences of anteaters and the defenses of their prey. To investigate this question, in 1984, Redford went to Brazil to study a group of anteaters at the Brasilia Zoo, as well as in the wild at Emas National Park.

Ants and termites are highly social critters, and their social structure consists of three main groups: the reproductive, the worker, and the soldier castes. The defenses of the soldier castes in termites and ants vary from entirely chemically based, in which they secrete toxic or repellent chemicals, to the fully mechanical, in which they use their mandibles to pierce the skin of the attacker, and occasionally to draw blood. Redford hypothesized that the foraging behavior of the anteaters would vary according to the type of defense behavior employed by the soldier castes of the ant and termite colonies on which they fed.

The first part of the study was conducted with the help of three giant anteaters that were kept at the Brasilia Zoo. Two shallow trays were placed before the anteaters, each of which contained broken up pieces of a termite mound. Each tray, therefore, contained thousands of living and active termites, of one of eight possible species: Grigiotermes metoecus, Armitermes euamignathus, Cornitermes cumulans, Cortaritermes silvestri, Nasutitermes, Procorniterrnes araujoi, Velocitermes paucipilis, and Orthognathotermes gibberorum. Each individual anteater was tested with all possible two-way combinations to determine their overall preferences.

The researchers recorded the sequence in which the individuals ate the different species, as well as the number of times the anteater sniffed but did not snack on a particular species. Since it was impossible to quantify the number of termites eaten, they recorded the duration of each feeding session as well, for each termite species. The anteaters’ foraging behaviors were compared with three termite variables: the size of the termites, their nutritional value, and the type of defensive system that they used (chemical or mechanical).

The anteaters did not feed on the different species equally. In 24 of the 28 two-way comparisons, there were clear preferences for one termite species over the other, and all three individual anteaters showed the same preferences. The two tastiest termite species were Cornitermes and Procornitermes.

Salvidor Dali walks his pet anteater. (Unknown source)

These findings alone suggest that the anteaters are making explicit foraging decisions, instead of opportunistically dining on whatever critters are around. Redford wanted to know, however, how do the anteaters decide which species to eat? How do anteaters make their decisions?

Prey size did not correlate significantly with feeding decisions, nor did the nutritional value of the prey. Both of those possibilities were easily ruled out. The percentage of the colony that comprised the soldier caste was not correlated with feeding decisions, either. Nor was the aggressiveness of the termite soldiers. Despite their clear preferences, Redford was unable to determine the variables that were behind those preferences.

Perhaps wild anteaters could provide some clues.

Redford and his colleagues drove around the national park, searching for anteaters. Once they spotted an anteater, they’d get out of the car and follow on foot. Data was collected on the location and duration of feedings, as well as (where possible) the prey species. The anteaters spent 23.1% of their time (across 40 observations and 1487 individual feeding sessions) engaged in feeding behaviors. Eight species of termites and six species of ants were identified across the observed feeding sessions.

Again, it was clear that the anteaters displayed clear preferences. But the preferences shown by the wild anteaters were different from the preferences shown by their captive cousins. For example, the favorite termite species of the captive anteaters, Cornitermes, accounted for only 12% of the feeding time in the wild and was rated only fourth in preference. And the least favorite genus of the captive anteaters, Velocitermes, was the favorite in the wild.

What can explain the differences in terms of species preference? One possibility is the mound structure that the different species use. In the tests at the zoo, the anteaters never had to break into a termite mound; instead, the crumbled up mound pieces were presented to them. For example, Syntermes, one of the favorites in the zoo, has a mound structure that goes up to 1.5 meters into the ground, allowing the ants to retreat into deeper ground when attacked from above. It is also possible that certain defenses (particularly, the chemical defenses) may have been significantly less effective in the broken-up mounds offered to the captive anteaters.

Additionally, in the wild, the anteaters may feed in such a way as to avoid the soldiers, and face a lower soldier-to-worker ratio than in the samples offered in the zoo. Specifically, at the beginning of an anteater feed, more workers and fewer soldiers are present than is the case after even a few seconds. Previous studies have shown that once the ratio of soldiers-to-workers becomes unfavorable (due to the retreat of workers and the recruitment of soldiers), anteaters will take a break from eating. Scientists had already known that this was the case by determining the soldier-to-worker ratio in anteater stomach samples.

Another possible explanation for the discrepancy is that, in many cases, multiple species of termites or ants share the same mound. This may mean that certain species that were particularly palatable under the controlled environment at the zoo, were less favorable in the wild due to their proximity to other less desirable or more aggressive species.

Yet another explanation for the discrepancy comes from the possibility that anteaters may be not specialized for ants or termites, per se, but rather on small arthropods that live socially. In Venezuela, anteaters prey mostly on ants, while in Brazil, they feed mostly on termites. The diet differences are probably related to differences in the relative availability of various species of ants and termites in the different regions. Thus, Redford argues:

Anteater preference may be only relative to the social insects available to them and not based on factors intrinsic to particular prey species. This flexibility would be necessary to allow [anteaters] to range through so many different habitats with their different social insect communities, and may account for the lack of agreement between wild and captive preferences reported in this study.

Very likely, each of these possibilities probably plays a role in explaining the observed discrepancies in prey preferences between the captive and wild anteaters.

What about the larger issue of defense strategy? When combining data from both the captive experiments and the wild observations, Redford discovered that the anteaters tended to avoid termites that used chemical defenses, in favor of those that relied on mechanical defenses. It may be that the species (such as Procornitermes and Cornitermes) that rely on using their mandibles to slash or slice tend to be effective defenses for small predators (like mice), but are generally ineffective against larger predators such as anteaters that slurp them up with their long saliva-covered tongues.

Redford made one other important observation. Giant anteaters feed on all of the different prey species in a similar way, irrespective of nutritional value, mound structure, or defense system: they feed for short periods of time, switching frequently from mound to mound. It had been previously suggested that this was simply prudent predation: the anteaters could avoid totally destroying any particular mound and losing a valuable source of food. Instead, these data suggest that the anteaters’ predatory patterns emerge because of the defensive strategies employed by their prey. Once there are too many soldiers around, it becomes time for the anteater to move on to the next mound.

While predators improve their hunting-related behaviors, the prey improve their ability to avoid predation and escape from their predators. This game of evolutionary ping-pong, played out over millions of years, has resulted in an elaborate set of defenses in ants and termites, and an equally sophisticated set of hunting techniques in anteaters. As long as both teams are playing, neither team will win.

Kent H. Redford (1985). Feeding and food preference in captive and wild Giant anteaters (Myrmecophaga tridactyla) Journal of Zoology, 205, 559-572.

Header photo via Rosh/Fotopedia.

Jason G. Goldman About the Author: Dr. Jason G. Goldman received his Ph.D. in Developmental Psychology at the University of Southern California, where he studied the evolutionary and developmental origins of the mind in humans and non-human animals. Jason is also an editor at ScienceSeeker and Editor of Open Lab 2010. He lives in Los Angeles, CA. Follow on . Follow on Twitter @jgold85.

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

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