On the shoulders of giants

With more than two meters from head to tail, the giant anteater (Myrmecophaga tridactyla) is the largest anteater species. Anteaters are most closely related to sloths within xenarthrans (Order Pilosa), which also include armadillos (Order Cingulata). As all xenarthrans, giant anteaters originated in South America and are widely distributed throughout the Neotropics from Southern Brazil to Honduras in Central America. Unlike other anteater species, giant anteaters are fully terrestrial and occupy a diversity of habitats from tropical moist forests, dry forests, savannas and open grasslands.

Giant anteater (Myrmecophaga tridactyla) by Mehgan Murphy, [CC BY 2.0], via flickr.com

Feeding exclusively on social insects, the giant anteater is the ultimate termites and ants eating machine in being able to ingest more than 30,000 insects from 80 different colonies in a single night! This highly specialized myrmecophagous diet has triggered the evolution of an arsenal of morphological adaptations to efficiently forage and digest such impressive amounts of insects. The giant anteater possesses powerful claws for breaking into ant and termite nests and an extremely elongated tongue (reaching 60 cm) coated with sticky saliva to catch the social insects. Being completely toothless, preys are ingested directly, predigested by saliva produced through enlarged salivary glands, and further process in a muscular stomach.


Male and female adult giant anteaters are solitary and only paired once every two years for a brief courtship period during the breeding season. They usually produce a single offspring that stays under maternal care with the female carrying the young on her back until it is able to walk, about two or three months after birth. Young remain with their mother until they are about one year old and become experienced enough to disperse.


From the conservation point of view, the giant anteater is currently classified as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Despite its wide geographical distribution, habitat loss is a major concern and represents a significant threat in many parts of its range. There have been many records of local extinctions in Central America (Guatemala and Belize) and in the southern parts of the distribution (Uruguay). In grasslands such as in Brazil, the species is particularly susceptible to fires and animals are sometimes killed on roads. It has been estimated that the giant anteater population has suffered an overall reduction in population size of more than 30% over the last 60 years (three generations).


Today, we share a chromosome-length assembly for the giant anteater. This is a Hi-C upgrade to a draft genome hybrid assembly generated by combining Nanopore long reads with Illumina short reads by Rémi Allio, Frédéric Delsuc and team at Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) and Université de Montpellier as part of the ConvergeAnt project (https://www.convergeant-project.com). The original sample used for the initial draft assembly comes from a captive individual born at Duisburg Zoo (Germany) in 2014 and who died at Cayenne Zoo (French Guiana) in 2018. This sample (M3023) is part of the JAGUARS collection curated by Benoit de Thoisy (Institut Pasteur de Cayenne and Kwata NGO, French Guiana). The sample for the Hi-C upgrade was donated by Rio soon after she was born at the Houston Zoo.


Check out the interactive contact map featuring 30 giant anteater chromosomes below. More data and links related to this assembly can be found on the corresponding assembly page!


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