HomeAnteaters & Highways: Bridging the Gap Between Humans and Wildlife
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Anteaters & Highways: Bridging the Gap Between Humans and Wildlife

Categories: Animals, Conservation
a collared giant anteater
A collared female giant anteater gives insights on giant anteater range and behavior.

One of the most interesting-looking animals at the Sacramento Zoo is the giant anteater. With its shaggy black-and-grey fur, fan-like tail, long snout, and 24-inch tongue, this unique species is hard to forget.

Giant anteaters are insectivores and are one of only two mammals that do not have teeth. Instead, their tongues are coated by a sticky saliva that laps up insects, primarily ants and termites. Did you know that an anteater’s tongue can flick in and out of the animal’s mouth up to 150 times per minute?

Anteaters may not have the best sense of sight and hearing, but their sense of smell is phenomenal and is 40 times more powerful than a human’s sense of smell. With their powerful nose, anteaters can detect insect mounds and quickly rip into them with their claws. Anteaters will only feed on each mound for about a minute, so that they do not decimate the entire colony. This helps protect anteaters from insect bites and protects their local food source, so it remains available for future meals.

Giant anteaters can be found throughout South and Central America in tropical and dry forests, savannas, and open grasslands. Anteaters generally live alone in ranges that vary in size from 660 to more than 8,000 acres.

One of four species of anteaters, giant anteaters are the most vulnerable. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List, giant anteaters are the most threatened mammals in Central America and are considered extinct in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Uruguay. They are docile, making them easy to kill for their skin and meat. Some people still mistakenly believe that giant anteaters kill livestock and dogs, thus hunt them extensively.

Anteaters & Highways is a conservation project led by Dr. Arnauld Desbiez and is dedicated to protecting the giant anteater population in the Brazilian Cerrado biome. In the past 35 years, more than half of the Cerrado has been developed by pasture and agriculture, serviced by a vast network of roads.  The roads have fragmented the anteaters’ habitat. As humans encroach on anteater habitat, anteaters have become one of the animals most frequently killed in wildlife-vehicle collisions.

Anteaters & Highways collects data on anteaters’ road interactions. The project focuses on evaluating anteater behavior, population structure, and health in relation to the impact of roads. The results of the project are used to develop landscape and road management guidelines to mitigate the impact of road mortality on anteater populations in the Cerrado.

a giant anteater baby is hand-fed by Anteaters & Highways and their partners
Orphaned giant anteaters and hand-fed and raised before being reintroduced to the wild.

The project currently monitors 11 adult females, four adult males, and 15 juvenile giant anteaters via telemetry and field expeditions. These studies gather data about reproduction, ecology, and movement to try to prevent vehicle collisions. Anteaters & Highways partners with rehabilitation ranches to rehabilitate orphaned anteaters so they can be safely re-introduced to the wild. Since the start of this project, Anteaters & Highways has helped reintroduce six anteaters who are then tracked and compared to data collected on wild juvenile anteaters.

Using the data collected, Anteaters & Highways partners with NGOS from Coalition Bonito Não Atropela to enact and monitor measures to reduce anteater-vehicle collisions. In 2021, the organization wrote and presented mitigation plans for three main roads, checked the effectiveness of the mitigation measures for the area, and installed speed reducers and 1.2 miles of fencing and upgraded wildlife crossings. Anteaters & Highways then field-tested speed reduction measures of nearly 3,000 vehicles and conducted interviews to test the effectiveness of different wildlife warning signs. This resulted in the installation of canopy bridges for safe wildlife crossing in the municipality of Campo Grande, Mato Grosso do Sul.

Anteaters & Highways leverages community support and citizen science data to help protect local wildlife. They are launching a new “Highway Heroes” app. This app will allow truck drivers to log roadkill giant anteater sightings. The data will be compiled with the telemetry and field research data, providing more accurate models and recommendations for the Department of Transportation. The app will alert truck drivers when they enter high wildlife risk areas, prompting them to drive more carefully. By engaging truck drivers with the project, the drivers will gain a sense of ownership and pride in the important role they play in mitigating wildlife-vehicle collisions.

Through our global conservation contributions, the Sacramento Zoo is a proud partner with Anteaters & Highways. You can help anteaters too!