15 Majestic Facts About the Anteater

There are four species of anteaters—the giant anteater, southern and northern tamanduas, and silky anteaters—and all of them are totally awesome. Here are 15 reasons why.

1. Their tongues are ridiculous.

They start at the anteater’s breastbone and can extend up to two feet long. Their tongues are also covered in backward-facing spines and super-sticky saliva for maximum bug collection.

2. They’ve got no teeth.

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After sucking that absurd tongue back into its face, an anteater swallows its food whole. The bugs travel down into the anteater’s stomach, where super-strong muscles grind them up.

3. Their legs look like panda faces.

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Once you’ve seen it, you can’t unsee it. This patterning is part of the giant anteater’s protective coloration. Mothers carry their babies on their backs. The little anteater’s coloring is similar to its mother’s, which allows the baby to vanish and simultaneously makes its mother look bigger.

4. They’ve got fistfuls of knives.

The paws of all four species are tipped with enormous, knifelike claws so long and sharp that the anteaters have to walk on their knuckles or wrists to avoid stabbing themselves.

5. They don’t want to be friends.

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Anteaters are not social animals. They avoid humans and other animals, including each other. Adults typically come together only to mate, and even then they're apathetic at best, and hostile at worst. One researcher noted that both the male and female in a pair of tamanduas continued foraging for insects as they did the deed. In between rounds, they swiped at each other with their claws.

6. They really, really don’t want to be friends.

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They won’t attack unless they feel threatened, which is lucky for us; when they do, it’s often lethal. A defensive anteater will rear back on its hind legs, use its tail for balance, and come out swinging with those fistfuls of blades. Giant anteaters have been responsible for at least three human deaths, and all three anteaters had been cornered. There’s a lesson to be learned here.

7. They’re a crowd favorite … barely.

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The anteater is the mascot of the University of California at Irvine, selected by popular vote in a 1965 contest. The second-place choice was “none of these.”

8. Tamanduas are also not to be messed with.

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They’re known locally as the “stinkers of the forest.” When in danger, the tamandua starts hissing and detonates a skunk-like stink bomb from a gland under its tail. This is a surprisingly common (but unsurprisingly effective) skill in the animal kingdom.

9. “Giant” is not an exaggeration.

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Giant anteaters average between six and eight feet long and can weigh up to 140 pounds. They can eat up to 30,000 ants a day.

10. They’re on a sustainable diet.

Tamanduas and giant anteaters feed from a termite mount or anthill for less than a minute before moving on to the next one. This is likely because they have about 40 seconds before the insects inside figure out what’s going on and mount a counterattack against the anteater’s vulnerable tongue. Still, these short visits keep the anteaters from ever totally decimating a colony, which means that there’s always more for next time.

11. The Surrealists loved them.

Salvador Dalí and his posse had a thing for anteaters. Poet André Breton, founder of the movement, was known to his friends as “le tamanoir,” or André the Anteater. Dalí drew a picture of Breton as an anteater, albeit a surreal one. Three years after Breton’s death, Dalí was seen in Paris walking an anteater on a leash. (Warning: Do not attempt this unless you are Salvador Dalí.)

12. They keep their private parts extra private.

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Male anteaters keep their testicles inside their bodies. When the first anteater specimens were brought from the New World to Spain, the Europeans took this absence of visible junk as a sign that all anteaters were female. Continuing this line of rigorous inquiry, they decided that the anteaters must mate through their noses.

13. The silky anteater is painfully cute.

They’re also tiny, weighing in at less than a pound each. These little creampuffs are arboreal, spending their entire lives high up in the trees. They especially like the ceiba tree, whose fluffy golden seed pods provide the perfect camouflage.

14. That doesn’t mean they’re pets.

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Before you ask: no. Sorry. You can’t have a silky anteater. First of all, they’re incredibly secretive—so secretive that scientists know almost nothing about them. They can’t even get a decent head count. Second, silky anteaters need to live in the wild. Even if you found one and took it home, it wouldn’t survive more than a few days in captivity, and then you’d feel like a jerk for taking it out of its fluffy tree.

15. Meeting a silky anteater is apparently a religious experience.

Conservationist and TV host Jeff Corwin has described his time with the silky anteater in terms usually reserved for divine visitation or first girlfriends. In his book Living on the Edge: Amazing Relationships in the Natural World, Corwin rhapsodizes about the anteater’s “angelic face … Its dense pelage is as soft as cashmere and has the color of golden honey. It even smells nice, like clean linen.” Meeting the “angel of the forest,” Corwin was euphoric: “This mysterious, almost magical creature sends my heart aflutter each time I have the rare privilege to set my eyes upon it.”

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Good News, Dog Parents: You Can Teach Puppies as Well as Their Canine Moms Can
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If you’ve ever adopted a puppy, you probably know how frustrating it can be to teach your new family member the basic tenets of common decency, like not to pee on the carpet or tear up a whole roll of toilet paper.

In other areas, though, pups are rather impressive learners, capable of mimicking some human behaviors. In fact, for some tasks, they learn just as effectively from watching people as they do from watching other dogs, including their own mothers, a new study in Nature revealed.

Researchers from Hungary and the UK took 48 young puppies of various breeds and studied the conditions under which they can be taught to open a puzzle box containing food. The experiment revealed that the puppies were able to learn how to open the box regardless of whether the task was first demonstrated by a person, their mother, or an unfamiliar dog. In other words, not only are puppies capable of social learning, but they're able to learn tasks from humans they don't know—in this case, the experimenter.

However, researchers were surprised to learn that the puppies were more likely to learn how to open the box by watching an unfamiliar dog than by watching their own mothers. That may be because puppies spend more time looking at—and thus, learning from—an unfamiliar dog that intrigues them. This differs from other species such as kittens, which “learn to press a lever for food more rapidly from their mother than from an unfamiliar adult,” the study notes.

In addition, the puppies were able to perform the task again after a one-hour break, indicating that they had retained some memory of the learning experience.

The ability of dogs to learn from humans has been recorded in previous research. A 2015 study revealed that dogs learn better by demonstration (or the “do as I do” method) than training techniques that involve a system of punishments and rewards. The "do as I do" approach probably isn't the most practical method of teaching your pup to do its business outside, but if you already have an adult dog at home, your new puppy can follow the older dog's lead and learn by example.

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Michael Hutchinson
Spiders Can Fly Through the Air Using the Earth's Electric Field
A spider exhibiting ballooning behavior.
A spider exhibiting ballooning behavior.
Michael Hutchinson

Every so often, otherwise Earth-bound spiders take to the air. Ballooning spiders can travel hundreds of miles through the air (and, horrifyingly, rain down on unsuspecting towns). The common explanation for this phenomenon is that the spiders surf the wind on strands of silk, but there may be other forces at work, according to a new study spotted by The Atlantic.

In the research, published in Current Biology, University of Bristol scientists argue that Earth's atmospheric electricity allows spiders to become airborne even on windless days. To test their hypothesis, the researchers exposed spiders in the lab to electric fields similar to those naturally found in the atmosphere.

When the electric field was turned on, the spiders began to exhibit behavior associated with ballooning—they "tiptoed" on the ends of their legs, raised their abdomens, and released silk. Spiders only exhibit this behavior when ballooning. And when they did become airborne, the spiders’ altitude could be controlled by turning the electric field on and off. When the electric field was on, they rose through the air, but when it was off, they drifted downward.

This provides a potential explanation for why spiders take to the skies on certain days but not others, and how they can fly in calm, windless weather— something scientists have puzzled over since the early 19th century. (Even Darwin was flummoxed, calling it "inexplicable," The Atlantic notes.) However, the researchers note that these electric fields might not be totally necessary for ballooning—wind alone might work perfectly fine on some days, too. But understanding more about when and how spiders become airborne could help us predict when there will be large masses of arachnids flying through the skies (and hide).

[h/t The Atlantic]

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