FAZENDA SANTANA DO PIQUIRI, BRAZIL- In the middle of a cattle ranch in Brazil's Pantanal, a giant anteater appeared from the dense treeline and came down to drink at the edge of a lake. A wildlife photographer, watching from a rickety canoe on the water, had his camera trained on the animal when another movement caught his eye: a large male jaguar.
The big cat, with its neck of packed muscle and paws bigger than boxing gloves, silently padded toward the giant anteater and crouched behind it. The cat appeared ready to pounce—when something stopped him.
Luke Massey, who has photographed wildcat species across the globe, says the September 2017 encounter was one of the strangest wildlife interactions he's ever witnessed.
"When I saw the jaguar strolling up behind the completely unaware—and at the time vulnerable—giant anteater, I just assumed I was either about to witness a kill or an almighty battle. I was not expecting the jaguar to lie down and watch."
Not on the Menu?
But it's not too surprising to Fernando Rodrigo Tortato, a field researcher for the Pantanal Jaguar Project, which is managed by the cat-conservation group Panthera.
"The giant anteater is sometimes part of the jaguar's diet, but in the Pantanal it is an infrequent prey—less than 5 percent," Tortato says by email.Instead, the big cats living in this vast wetland prefer prey such as caiman, capybara, and peccary, he says.
"This jaguar could have had a full stomach, and was only curious about the giant anteater."
Conservationist Charles Munn, CEO of the wildlife tourism company SouthWild, has another explanation for the bizarre encounter. "The only reason why the jaguar didn't make a move on the giant anteater is because of the giant anteater's claws."
The odd-looking mammal has a secret weapon—sharp, ten centimetre claws that are typically used to tear apart anthills, but which can also be fatal to an attacker.
Fighting Tooth and Claw
In September 2016, camera traps in Brazil's Gurupi Biological Reserve captured a jaguar and giant anteater fighting. The jaguar appears to lunge for its potential prey, but the anteater stands up, opens its arms wide, and lashes out at the jaguar with claw flashing. (Read about the discovery of six new tiny anteaters.)
"I believe that film is the other part of this story," says Munn, "for had the jaguar tried to go for the anteater at the lake, the anteater could have swung at him with his ridiculously sharp and powerful claws, and the jaguar could have expected to be either badly or even fatally injured."
And it’s not just jaguars—giant anteaters have killed people as well. In 2007 a zookeeper in Argentina died after she was disemboweled by a captive giant anteater, and since then two hunters have met similar fates in the wild.