Tamanduas are not likely to be confused with any other rainforest mammal. They certainly are unique both in appearance and lifestyle. The name Tamandua comes for the union of two Tupi Indian words: “Taa”, meaning ant, and “Mandeu”, meaning trap.
Their long snout, long prehensile tail, massive hand claws, and the black “vest” they appear to wear draped on a white background make Tamanduas unmistakable in Costa Rica’s forests.
These are by far the most common anteaters in the country. Costa Rica is also home to the huge Giant Anteater and the tiny Silky Anteater, both of which are rarely seen.
Apart from these two anteaters, Tamanduas are most closely related to sloths and armadillos. They are grouped together because they lack any real teeth. Anteaters are the only ones, however, that have absolutely no teeth. In fact, their mouth can only open to about the diameter of a pencil! This leaves the Tamandua just enough room to stick out its very long, sticky tongue.
A Tamandua’s tongue can measure up to 40 centimeters and is covered with bristly hairs that point towards the mouth. They also have a huge salivary gland that keeps the tongue wet and sticky. When they are foraging, Tamanduas rip into logs, trees, and termite mounds with their massive claws and lap up any fleeing ants and termites. They are also fond of eating bees and their honey.
Studies have shown that some Tamanduas are more arboreal while others are mostly terrestrial. Terrestrial Tamanduas tend to eat more termites, while arboreal ones are more prone to eat ants. Because of their unique diet, their stomach has a muscular gizzard that aids them in grinding up their prey.
They tend to avoid ants with spiky bodies or strong defense mechanisms. When a Tamandua forages, they generally spend only a few minutes at each nest. This way, they can eat in relative peace before the soldiers from the colony mount an attack. Once this happens they move on. Tamanduas usually forage in a straight line, ensuring they do not visit the same nest twice. This strategy not only helps them avoid the nasty soldier ants, but also allows nests to regenerate so the anteater can return in a few days and plunder it anew. When not at rest, they are almost always on the move.
This is why seeing a Tamandua on the Night Tour, or anywhere in nature, is always a chance encounter and such a treat. Normally when we do encounter them they just go about their business, apparently oblivious to our presence. Many times they walk down the trail, right next to the group.
But don’t be fooled by this tranquil demeanor. When cornered Tamanduas will fiercely defend themselves. They prop themselves upright using their tail as a counterbalance and swing their sharp claws violently. Giant Anteaters defend themselves the same way and are rumored to kill large animals, including jaguars, when defending themselves from an attack.
An encounter with a Tamandua can happen during the day or at night. Every individual anteater in a study carried out in Panama was active for about eight hours, but each kept a different schedule than the rest.
Very little is know about the reproductive habits of Tamanduas. They breed late in the rainy season and females have a gestation period lasting 130 to 190 days. Females normally give birth to one offspring, usually towards the end of dry season, although twins have also been documented.
While foraging, females hide their young in dens and return to them when they have finished. They move their young to other dens from time to time, but it is rare to see a female moving about with her baby. We were fortunate enough to see this once during a Night Tour. The baby Tamandua was clinging on to the mother’s lower back as she moved through the trees. Young Tamanduas will stay with their mother until they are about one year old.
Captive Tamanduas have lived over nine years, although in nature their life span is probably shorter. Predators include Jaguars, Pumas, Harpy Eagles and other large Hawk-eagles, as well as very large snakes such as Boa Constrictors.