Wielding a host of decidedly unique body features, the giant anteater is easily one of the odder-looking animals known to roam the forests and savannas of Central and South America. It is also one of the most specialized for what it does best: eating ants and termites. As its name implies, the giant anteater is the largest existing species of anteater. Adults grow to be between 6 and 8 feet long and from 65 to 140 pounds in weight. Their bodies include a 3- to 4-foot-long torso and a bushy tail of up to the same length. The giant anteater's hair is long, straight and coarse, except when it is very young. The bushy tail is particularly coarse, even straw-like, and is usually darker in color than the rest of the anteater's body.
Coloration on the giant anteater varies quite a bit, though the same general patterns are found throughout the species. The main differences within the species lie in the anteater's main hair color - some individuals are mostly brown while others are mostly grey. On all giant anteaters, a large black stripe radiates from beneath the snout out to about mid-torso. This black stripe is surrounded by a thin outline of white, light grey or light brown, which also extends to cover both front paws. Near the base of the front paws, a black ring can usually be found as well. The giant anteater's distinct color patterning may add to the camouflaging of the animal, especially in forested areas.
The giant anteater's head is long and tubelike, ending in a small black mouth/nose. Compared to the giant anteater's brain (which is quite small relative to its body size), the skull is particularly large, extending up to about 18 inches in length. The giant anteater also has small eyes and small rounded ears protruding from the head. It is generally acknowledged that giant anteaters have a poor sense of sight but a keen sense of smell. In fact, their sense of smell is regarded to be some 40 times stronger than that of humans. Opinions are mixed on the giant anteater's sense of hearing - some scientists say it is particularly good, while others believe it is not really well developed.
Inside the giant anteater's head is a long tongue that protrudes from the oral opening. Measuring more than 2 feet long, this tongue is extremely important for the anteater, as it is used to extract insects from their mounds/nests and to deposit them into the anteater's digestive system. This thin tongue is coated with sticky saliva secreted by large glands in the neck. It is also covered with microscopic spine-like protrusions, which further aid the eating process. Giant anteaters have no teeth. Though recent studies suggest that they may flex their jaws to chew, they also use powerful stomach muscles and a strong palate to grind up the ants and termites they consume.
The giant anteater has four toes on each front paw, though they vary greatly in size. The innermost toe is not really visible - it's more like a small bump. Two of the other front toes are very large and heavily clawed, while the third, also heavily clawed, is twice as long as the others. The giant anteater's foreclaws are long and powerful, as they were designed to rip open ant and termite hills and to defend an anteater against predators. These claws fold against the palm when not in use. The hind paws have claws too, though these claws are much smaller than the formidable foreclaws.
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