The Extraordinary Yurumí


IN THE darkness of their underground bunker, a community scrambles wildly in response to an attack. Defending soldiers race to the danger zone with weapons ready, though woefully inadequate. Suddenly, a huge section of the protective wall collapses, and debris crushes many inhabitants. Through the breach in their defenses, in blinding light, the invader enters.

Is this a description of an assault on a city in Roman times? Or a scene from an action film? Not at all! Rather, it is the attack of the yurumí​—from an insect’s point of view. For the yurumí, or giant anteater, however, this is just one more termite mound on its daily rounds.

An Encounter With a Yurumí

Although there are various kinds of anteaters, we will consider specifically the giant anteater, also known as the ant bear. Actually, it is not a bear at all but was perhaps given this name because of its ponderous gait and because it often assumes a vertical position when called upon to defend itself. Also, it “hugs” an assailant with its powerful forearms, as a bear does.

In northeastern Argentina and in bordering countries, the giant anteater is called yurumí because of its Guarani name, which means “of small mouth.” The name is apt, since its mouth is a very small orifice, even though its jaw extends the length of its head. The yurumí’s extended tubular mouth is the first of its features to grab an observer’s attention. The yurumí also boasts a long, bushy tail, which it sometimes carries in an almost vertical position. Its thick fur becomes long and feathery in its tail, giving it the appearance of being much bulkier than it is. Despite its striking appearance, the yurumí’s body is only about as big as that of a German shepherd dog. A full-grown yurumí may weigh up to 55 pounds [25 kg]. But it can grow to be six feet [1.8 m] or more from its mouth to the tip of its tail.

The yurumí leads a lonely, wandering life, mostly in the swampy savannas of South America. When you think of this continent, you might often picture thick rain forests and luxuriant vegetation. But it also has vast expanses of flat, arid grassland dotted with palm groves and mounds of thorny vegetation. The soil in such countryside is rich in decomposed plant material and is ideal for termites. Here the insects erect their skyscrapers of earth and saliva​—a combination that makes for very strong construction. These monolithic structures can reach a height of more than six feet [1.8 m].

In the midst of this abundance of insects, we find the yurumí​—which specializes in eating them. Thus, its scientific name Myrmecophaga tridactyla first calls attention to its dietary habits (anteater) and second to the fact that three of the four toes of each of its forepaws are armed with formidable hooklike claws. The Enciclopedia Salvat de la fauna points out: “The claws are for hunting food as well as for defense: When under attack the anteater uses them like sharpened stilettos, raising himself up on his hind legs with such skill and ability that they can cause serious injury and even put jaguars to flight.”

How Does the Yurumí Eat?

The yurumí has no teeth. This does not hamper it, however, because it possesses extraordinary means for obtaining its nutrition. First, it has a keen sense of smell​—40 times sharper than a  human’s—​with which to locate food. The yurumí then uses its front paws, with claws measuring up to four inches [10 cm] in length, to dig into the earthen bunkers in search of insects, larvae, or eggs. After doing so, it extends its slender 18-inch [45 cm] tongue into the insects’ hidden galleries.

The yurumí’s outsize salivary glands secrete gummy saliva to keep its tongue moist and sticky. Ants or termites stick to its tongue and are drawn back into its mouth. But just swallowing these creatures is not enough. It has to digest them too. Interestingly, it possesses strong stomach muscles that grind up the insects.

What Future for the Yurumí?

Though distributed in a wide area across Central and South America, yurumís have never been abundant. Perhaps they were never prolific breeders. Female yurumís bear only a single baby after a gestation period of about 190 days. The mother transports her offspring on her back during its first year. An Argentine naturalist describes an interesting aspect of this: “I encountered a mother with her little one, only a few days old. The tiny creature was easy to miss on the back of the adult, and I noted with interest that the camouflage was made complete by the special location of the cub, which superimposed the black band on his back over that of his mother. Thus, he was less noticeable to birds of prey.”

The yurumí has a significant effect on the ecological community in which it dwells. A single yurumí devours tens of thousands of ants or termites a day. Without the yurumí’s constant pressure on the insect population, might these insects increase to plague proportions? In any case, this natural balance is shifting. Why?

Sadly, the yurumí is disappearing, little by little, because of man. Some hunt them for sport; others kill them because they regard the yurumí as a bad omen. Still others capture them for sale to collectors of zoological rarities, and these anteaters end up either in cages or in museums​—stuffed. Will the yurumí join other rare creatures in extinction? Time will tell. Efforts are being made to protect this jewel of biological diversity.

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Looking for one of its favorite meals​—termites

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A baby “yurumí” being carried on its mother’s back

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The “yurumí’s” impressive 18-inch tongue

[Credit Line]

Kenneth W. Fink/Bruce Coleman Inc.