Somewhere in the dense wilderness of Brazil’s Parnaíba Delta, Flávia Miranda, a researcher in conservation medicine, embarks on a journey that might unveil a new chapter in the often-overlooked world of anteaters. Miranda, who has spent 30 years studying Brazil’s sloths, anteaters, and armadillos, suddenly stops amidst the tangled mangrove branches and finds a fascinating creature, a tennis ball-sized silky anteater—the smallest in the world.
A Unique Species
Silky anteaters are known for their diminutive size and distinctive features. The miniature species of anteaters was the first to evolve, between 30-40 million years ago, reside in the canopy of low-altitude rainforests and mangroves spanning from southern Mexico to northern Bolivia. They also toe the line between cute and creepy.
They’re solitary, nocturnal, mainly feed on ants and termites, and spend a significant portion of their two-year lifespan in a state of slumber! Until recently, scientists believed that all silky anteaters were a single species. In 2017, an analysis of their DNA revealed there are seven distinct species of silky anteaters, good on them.
Puzzling Isolation in Parnaíba Delta
The Parnaíba Delta is home to a peculiar population of silky anteaters. Isolated from their nearest kin in the Amazon Basin and the rainforests along Brazil’s Atlantic coast, these anteaters pose a mystery. They dwell more than 1,000 miles away from their closest relatives, raising questions about their origin as well as their migration habits.
Genetic analysis indicates that this population has been diverging from other silky anteater species for about two million years, but it requires further confirmation through physical characteristics to be declared a new species.
A New Era in Silky Anteater Research
The environment poses significant threats to these unique creatures. Local communities rely on the mangroves for resources like fencing, housing, and boats. Livestock also roam freely within the delta, overgrazing and trampling the delicate ecosystem.
Flávia Miranda’s work is truly groundbreaking, and she and her team have been working with the local community to restore and protect the mangroves, a venture that aids the silky anteaters and other wildlife. We still haven’t worked out if they’re cute or creepy, though!