Anteaters belong to the biological classification Pilosa Vermilingua. They are mammals and there are four subspecies: the silky anteater, the northern and southern tamanduas and the giant anteater. All four types are found only in South and Central America. The name “Vermilingua” translates as “worm tongue” and this gives an indication of one of the distinctive physical characteristics anteaters have evolved to survive and thrive.
Arguably the most distinctive physical adaptation of the anteater is its long proboscis. This has evolved to enable the anteater to root into termite mounds and anthills where their prey live. An anteater's nose is also its primary means of detecting prey in the first place. Anteater's do not have very good eyesight and they locate insects by smell.
Once an anteater has located its food and nuzzled its snout into a termite mound or ant colony, it uses its long, sticky tongue to gather its prey. The giant anteater's tongue can grow to more than 60cm in length and is covered in tiny spines and a sticky saliva that traps termites and ants. The anteater then withdraws its tongue -- with the insects attached -- into its mouth and swallows its prey. Because its prey is so tiny, an anteater needs to eat a great number to get the sustenance it needs. A giant anteater, for example, can eat up to 35,000 termites in a single day.
Anteaters have developed large, strong claws on both their fore and hind feet. Those at the front are used to dig open termite mounds and root in soil for ants. The claws are also utilised in climbing. All anteaters are able to climb trees. In fact, the silky and both tamadua species spend the majority of their time in trees searching for food. The giant anteater is too heavy to spend much time above ground, but its claws, like those of its cousins, are also useful for defence against predators, such as jaguars and pumas.
The tail of the anteater is also useful if it comes under attack. The animal will rear up on its hind feet to appear larger and more intimidating to a predator. It uses its tail to balance itself, rather like a fifth leg. The tail also helps anteaters to balance when climbing in the trees.
Ants and termites are not the most nutritious of foods, so the anteater has developed a slow metabolism and low body temperature to conserve energy. At 32.7 degrees centigrade, the giant anteater's body temperature is one of the lowest among all mammals. To further conserve energy, it sleeps for up to 15 hours every day, using its long, hairy tail to conserve heat by wrapping it around its body.