How Roadkill Became an Environmental Disaster

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How Roadkill Became an Environmental Disaster

To save Brazil’s giant anteaters, scientists are grappling with one of the planet’s most transformative forces: roads.  Illustrations by Zoe van Djik
To save Brazil’s giant anteaters, scientists are grappling with one of the planet’s most transformative forces: roads. Illustrations by Zoe van Djik

Story  by Ben Goldfarb, The Atlantic, November 26, 2019

Among Salvador Dalí’s many obsessions—sex, time, death, himself—one of the longest-lasting was giant anteaters. The Spanish painter began sketching the creatures around 1930, and decades later strolled the streets of Paris with a leashed live specimen.  A surrealist couldn’t have chosen a more appropriate pet. Massive front  claws force anteaters to walk on their knuckles, giving them the  shuffling gait of a gorilla holding a fistful of steak knives. Entirely  toothless, Myrmecophaga tridactyla possesses a two-foot-long  tongue, an organ so prodigious that it’s anchored to the sternum and  furls, Fruit Roll-Ups–style, into its owner’s tubular mouth. Anteaters  use their tongue to probe anthills and termite mounds like moths at an  orchid, lapping up prey with a sticky lacquer of saliva. These sieges  are brief, ending when the insects flee or sting. Giant anteaters are  thus rotational grazers, endlessly circuiting their bug-filled pastures.  A few termites here, a few there, and by day’s end they’ve slurped down  30,000 bugs. 

To wander in the 21st century, unfortunately, is to court death. The  giant anteater’s range, which runs from Honduras to Argentina, is  bisected by BR-262, the highway that cuts across the Brazilian state of  Mato Grosso do Sul as it winds from the Bolivian border to the Atlantic  Ocean. Along the way, the road knifes through two ecosystems: the  Pantanal, Earth’s largest tropical wetland, and the Cerrado, the savanna  that covers more than 20 percent of Brazil. Eucalyptus, iron, cattle,  and cocaine pulse through this infrastructural aorta, transported in  trucks against which soft-bodied, naive animals stand no chance.  Researchers who have tallied BR-262’s roadkill consider the highway  Brazil’s deadliest, and one of the worst in the world.

When  I drove BR-262 with a Brazilian wildlife veterinarian named Mario Alves  one dry morning in July, we found that it had claimed yet another giant  anteater. The victim, six feet from her long snout to her massive tail,  lay sprawled on the shoulder in a state of advanced decomposition. Her  fur sloughed from her sun-blackened skin. Botflies whirred. Alves knelt,  scissors in his gloved hand, and snipped the tip of one ear, stuffing  the scrap into a vial for genetic analysis. I ogled the long broom of a  tail, the appendage that this anteater had once wrapped around herself  and her pup like a blanket against the chilly Cerrado nights. Now it was  limp.

The anteater’s pennantlike tail furnishes its Portuguese name—tamanduá-bandeira,  the flag anteater. It also provides the moniker of the research  initiative that had brought us to BR-262: Projeto Bandeiras e Rodovias,  or Anteaters and Highways, a multipronged examination of how Brazil’s  metastasizing road network affects one of its most charismatic mammals.

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