- A new study shows that giant anteaters, which are relatively poor at regulating their own body temperature, need forest patches as thermal shelters.
- It found that giant anteaters living in less forested habitats tended to travel farther to access forest fragments as a refuge from extreme temperatures.
- Researchers highlight the importance of understanding the spatial requirement of animals to guide management strategies and suggest conservation efforts focused on protecting forest patches within anteaters’ home ranges to help them regulate their body temperature.
Giant anteaters are native to the savannas of Central and South America. They forage in the open spaces of the mosaic of forests, grasslands and wetlands, and rest in the more sheltered and covered habitats. That latter part is important: A recently published study shows that giant anteaters are relatively poor regulators of their own body temperature, and need these shady patches to cool down from the sun and stay warm from wind and rain.
The giant anteater (Myrmecophaga tridactyla), the largest of the anteater species, is an endotherm like other mammals, which means it can maintain a constant body temperature independent of the environment. However, giant anteaters have one of the lowest body temperatures of any placental mammal, at around 32.7° Celsius (90.9° Fahrenheit) — compared to 37°C (98.6°F) for humans — and have a low capacity for physiological thermoregulation. So they have to rely on behavior adjustments to thermoregulate.
A team led by Aline S. Giroux, lead author of the new study and an ecologist at the Federal University of Mato Grosso do Sul, Brazil, found that giant anteaters use forest patches as thermal buffers due to their milder microclimate conditions. Forests give shelter from rain and chilly winds, and compared to open areas, they remain cooler in the summer months and warmer during cold nights.
The importance of forest patches
Giroux and her team caught, measured and GPS-tagged 19 wild anteaters in the Santa Barbara Ecological Station in São Paulo state in 2015 and Baía das Pedras Ranch in Mato Grosso do Sul state between 2013 and 2017.
By analyzing their movement patterns and home range, the researchers concluded that giant anteaters living in areas with less tree cover had larger home ranges, suggesting the animals are traveling farther to access forest fragments as a refuge from extreme temperatures.
This behavior is crucial as climate change increases the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events. Last year, a mix of prolonged droughts, heat waves and high winds set the Brazilian portion of the Pantanal wetlands, the world’s largest, on fire. The burning in 2020 alone razed an area nearly 22 times the area lost between 2000 and 2018. Wildfires seem to be following a similar pattern this year. Fires, coupled with drastic forest loss through land clearing, threaten the survival of forest-dependent animals like the giant anteater.
“Certainly, many animals were lost in the last fires,” Giroux told Mongabay. “Anteaters are slow and heavy-sleeping animals. Unfortunately, it’s common that they don’t notice the fire until the fire is too close. Furthermore, animals that survive fires are certainly suffering from the forest loss that fires cause.”
Due to the giant anteater’s susceptibility to environmental changes, the authors say the species can serve as an indicator of environmental stress in other animals. “We believe that giant anteaters can show more conspicuous changing behavior in response to climate change, giving us an idea of what will happen with other open areas mammals in the near future,” Giroux said.
The study highlights the importance of understanding the spatial requirement of animals to guide management strategies that can help preserve threatened species like the giant anteater and their homes. But Giroux said she fears the policies adopted by the current Brazilian government, led by President Jair Bolsonaro, will hamper conservation efforts. “The current Brazilian government has adopted a policy to encourage deforestation, weakening forest protection laws and dismantling environmental law enforcement agencies,” she said.
She called for public actions that advance forest preservation and conservation efforts focused on protecting forest fragments within anteaters’ home ranges to help them survive extreme weather events. Conserving these fragmented environments will also protect other animals like jaguars that need forested corridors to survive.
“We hope that information like this reaches the population,” Giroux said, “so that everyone realizes that life needs forests.”
Giroux, A., Ortega, Z., Oliveira-Santos, L. G. R., Attias, N., Bertassoni, A., & Desbiez, A. L. J. (2021). Sexual, allometric and forest cover effects on giant anteaters’ movement ecology. PLOS ONE, 16(8), e0253345. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0253345
Giroux, A., Ortega, Z., Bertassoni, A., Desbiez, A. L. J., Kluyber, D., Massocato, G. F., … Oliveira-Santos, L. G. R. (2021). The role of environmental temperature on movement patterns of giant anteaters. Integrative Zoology. doi:10.1111/1749-4877.12539
Banner image by Arnaud Desbiez.
Romi Castagnino is Mongabay’s bilingual writer and presenter. Find her on Twitter and Instagram: @romi_castagnino