The Terror of Ants Returns

By Fernando Fuentes

I

t is said that among the grasslands of Iberá, in the province of Corrientes, Argentina, dozens of monsters with elongated snouts and sticky tongues spread terror among ants. With a powerful sense of smell and scrutinizing claws, they travel day and night across the geography of Corrientes in search of food. They are not extraterrestrials who arrived in flying saucers. They migrate from neighboring provinces and, for some years, they can be found there thanks to an initiative from Conservation Land Trust (CLT), a non-governmental environmental organization (NGO).

We are talking about the giant anteater (Myrmecophaga tridactyla for scientists), a mammal that can measure two meters long—if we consider its long tail, of course. Adult specimens weigh about 50 kilograms, and those who have seen them up close say they don’t have teeth but a fearsome two-foot tongue. They seem to have poor vision and are mainly guided by the smell. Their body is covered by a brown or gray fur with a blackish V and some white lines. On the back they carry a colorful mane that joins the tail fur.

Anteaters usually travel alone or in pairs around Iberá. Some carry a baby on the back—born weighing about 2 lbs.—which allows inferring it is a female specimen.

Anteaters usually travel alone or in pairs around Iberá. Some carry a baby on the back—born weighing about 2 lbs.—which allows inferring it is a female specimen. Patiently, they travel long distances in search of food. They feed on ants of the genera Solenopsis, Camponotus, Crematogaster, among others. They also eat termites of the genera Nasutitermes, Armitermes, and Velocitermes, to name a few. Each feeding period is short and lasts about a minute. Therefore, to satiate their hunger they must keep the tongue and claws active much of the day. Their appetite seems to be selective, since despite the abundance of ants of the genus Atta, there are no records of predation on these insects.

Vulnerable

Anteaters are not territorial animals and usually require 2 to 12 sq. km each to develop normally. They aren’t specialists and they dwell in closed areas of small forests and vast savannas covered with grasslands. They get along well with the subtropical climate of the region as they have low tolerance to extreme temperatures. In winter they prefer forests, while in summer they often find shelter from the heat in a wetland.

Unfortunately the habitat of these mammals—misnamed bears and closer to armadillos and sloths from a genetic point of view—has been progressively degraded. Clearing forests for livestock and agriculture, or the layout of roads have generated complications for the animal. Much of the anteaters have ended their days at the hands of a poacher, his dog, an intentional forest fire or the wheels of a car.

All the above coupled with the slow reproduction rate of the species—sexual maturity never before two and a half years of age and a single annual breeding—have contributed to the anteater being considered as a vulnerable and endangered species in Argentina.

In Search of Self-Sustainable Populations

In view of the information reported by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), a group of biologists and experts in environmental conservation has long been working in Corrientes. They represent CLT (Conservation Land Trust), founded by the late philanthropist Douglas Tompkins. One of the central objectives of their work has to do with the installation of a self-sustaining population of anteaters in Corrientes. They trust this goal will be reached in ten to fifteen years.

At the moment, they are engaged in receiving animals that were captive and adopted as pets, as well as orphan pups rescued from evil actions of hunters. In adult specimens, a quarantine period is imposed to explore in depth the animal’s state of health; and blood and stool tests are conducted for infectious diseases. Some arrive badly injured from captivity so bone lesions that may undermine the normal performance in nature are prioritized—and corrected through surgery.

Meanwhile, pups also receive intensive care before being introduced into the wild. They are given an artificial breeding, with a diet based on a smoothie containing balanced cat food, some fruits, and vegetables such as carrot and avocado. Experts consider that 20 kg is the optimal value for their release, which is typically accomplished within 10 to 18 months of age.

Let Them Go

All specimens are brought to an acclimation corral where they spend ten days before entering the private nature reserve managed by scientists from the NGO. This reserve consists of several hectares restored from the ecological point of view, and adjacent to estancias (ranches) in the countryside of Rincón del Socorro and San Alonso. There, the absence of natural predators such as pumas and jaguars, or poachers, portends longer survival for anteaters.

Once there, they roam through the reservation fitted with a radio collar emitting radio waves that allows experts to detect their location and track them through telemetry monitoring. Thanks to this technique anteaters are recaptured on a regular basis in order to reevaluate their health condition.

Other technology devices used by researchers are the so-called camera traps, which allow determining the behavior of some specimens, the presence of lesions that motivate recapture for treatment, or a new birth, among other things. They are strategically located in places baited with food and reviewed periodically. Gradually, cameras traps have replaced radio collars, which in some cases have caused wounds on the skin of animals.

According to field studies conducted by CLT, numbers seem promising: 53% of females in reproductive age released have given birth during the first year. But once they begin reproducing the annual birth rate is close to 100%.

Promising Numbers

Since 2007, with the support of the Government of the Province of Corrientes they have already released about 80 specimens. One of them came from a Zoo in Florencio Varela, an urban locality in the province of Buenos Aires. According to field studies conducted by CLT, numbers seem promising: 53% of females in reproductive age released have given birth during the first year. But once they begin reproducing the annual birth rate is close to 100%. The annual survival rate of reintroduced animals and their offspring is nothing less than 92%. Combining these figures, it is concluded that the reintroduced populations are growing in a self-sustaining manner by 29% annually.

But this is not happening in other provinces. According to biologists, there are specimens still resisting in Formosa, Chaco, Salta, Jujuy and Santiago del Estero. There, anteater communities experience a clear decrease in the number of members. So much so, that they have disappeared in Tucumán, Córdoba and Santa Fe. Meanwhile, in the Iberá Wetlands they are back. Some have charismatic names such as Porota, Curumí or Cambá; epithets that are far from being commensurate with their duties as the terror of ants.

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