Morphology, evolution and function of feeding in the giant anteater (Myrmecophaga tridactyla)



The edentulous giant anteater (Myrmecophaga tridactyla) ingests food using a slender, elongated sticky tongue which can project to a distance greater than the cranial length. A large and elongated hyoid apparatus, including a long stylohyal, epihyal, reduced ceratohyal and fused basihyal-thyrohyal fused to a partially ossified thyroid cartilage, supports the tongue. The fusion pattern and relative hyoid element sizes in adult Myrmecophaga differ from those in other xenarthran anteaters, tree and ground sloths, and armadillos. The hyoid bones have synovial joints with articular surfaces permitting great freedom of movement. A unique hyoid muscle arrangement enables Myrmecophaga to project the tongue with great speed and precise positional control. This muscle arrangement combined with an elongated secondary palate, accommodates the retracted tongue within the oropharynx without compromising the animal's ability to breathe. Maximum gape is reached at a few degrees of mandibular depression, but the oral opening is increased to 2 cm by the extreme length of the anterior facial region. Gape is further increased by medial rotation and depression of the unfused mandibular rami at the mental symphysis. This movement, even without mandibular depression, permits protraction and retraction of the elongated tongue. Mandibular rotation in lieu of depression and elevation simplifies jaw movements made by a smaller uniquely modified muscle mass over shorter distances, therefore increasing the speed with which anteaters can ingest food, and complements the extremely rapid tongue protrusion–retraction cycle.