Tamandua Days

RFC 2: January 24, 2002

By Jackie Willis

We had many rainy days, and the dry season that normally starts in late December was delayed this year. So the animals of the forest got wet every day, day after day. For some of them, this must be a miserable condition. Some tropical mammals are not very good at keeping their bodies warm, especially if their fur gets wet. Sloths, for example, need to bask in the sun to keep their body temperature constant and high. The other day we had a sunny morning, the first in a long time. I walked some trails for hours, enjoying the bright light and warm, dry day. The squirrels enjoyed the weather by having mating chases, a form of courtship among squirrels involving chasing around tree trunks.

About 11:00 AM I realized that another species enjoying the weather was the Tamanduas, or Vested Anteaters. Tamanduas are special anteaters because they live in trees. They have a prehensile tail, which is used to grasp branches, as a safety-line when they climb high in the treetops. Why would they want to climb so high? Don't ants live in the ground? Well, this is a tropical forest, and many species are adapted to living in trees, including many ants and termites.

I followed one anteater on the ground. She ripped open a termite nest in a rotten log and licked up hundreds of the soft white insects with her sticky tongue. During the Dry Season, Tamanduas switch from a diet composed mostly of ants to one with many termites. They seem to need the moisture they can derive from the soft, squishy termite bodies. Then the Tamandua climbed a tree, yawned a little anteater-yawn, laid her body over a tree branch that was in the sun, wrapped her tail around the branch, put her head on her paws, and fell asleep.

I walked on, but soon found another Tamandua on the trail ahead of me. He was searching at the bases of trees and in logs. I followed quietly behind him, with my video camera running. I was glad that they don't see well, because I could move closer each time when he had his head inside a rotten branch, and then stop moving when he looked up from his investigations. Then I stepped on a twig that cracked, and the Tamandua looked up, suddenly startled. He didn't know where I was, but he thought there was danger nearby!

He went into a protective stance, which Tamanduas use to threaten predators. They use their prehensile tail to clamp onto a log and to brace their body so they can stand up on their hind legs. They stand like this only when frightened by a predator. When they are standing, they can hold their arms in front and wave their big hook-like claws to defend themselves. They won't attack unless they are touched, but they can cause serious injuries with their sharp claws and muscular arms. Most of this is bluff: they don't want a fight, they just want to be left alone to continue feeding on ants and termites.

I love Tamanduas! They are so protective of their young, carrying their babies on their backs until they are nearly as big as Mom. One mother was whimpering when her big baby was caught in one of our squirrel traps! She must have waited outside the trap for hours until we came to release him. He was in a trap much too small for a Tamandua. He was crammed inside, looking very sad, and rather square in shape, like the trap. She seemed joyful as he backed out of the trap, running to him and touching noses, and they ran off together.

Tamanduas seem happy and contented with their ants and termites, they hurt nothing but their prey, and they have such unusual adaptations. Their mouth does not open very wide, because it is adapted to forming a tube shape that can reach into ant nests. They cannot carry their young with their mouth, like so many mammals can. The youngster has to cling to the mother's fur and ride on her back. Their hook-shaped claws are sharply pointed, so they walk on their knuckles to keep from blunting the claws. Their tongue is very narrow, long, flexible, and sticky-- just right for lapping up ants and termites.

I hope there are always forests for Tamanduas to raise their young, and for people to visit.

Adios, Jackie