Why Do Anteaters Live Only in the Tropics and More Questions From Our Readers

You’ve got questions. We’ve got experts.

anteater
One reader wonders: Why did ants make it all over the Americas while anteaters didn’t?

  Illustration by Marco Baccioli

Q: Why did ants make it all over the Americas while anteaters are only found in South America? Chris Bristol | Grants Pass, Oregon

As specialized feeders,anteaters—which include the giant anteater, two species of tamandua, and seven species of silky anteater—must live where ants and termites are superabundant, and nowhere are they more abundant than the tropics. The farther you move away from the tropics, the more ant and termite populations decline, eventually diminishing to the point where they can no longer sustain an anteater. But this does not mean that anteaters haven’t invaded some parts of North America. They can be found in the tropical parts of this continent, in southern and eastern Mexico. The Isthmus of Panama is what separates North and South America, and anteaters live on both sides. —Darrin Lunde, collections manager, Division of Mammals, National Museum of Natural History

Q: The Salem witch trials are well-known, but were there witch trials elsewhere in the U.S.? William Schmidt | Columbia, South Carolina

The trials in Salem, Massachusetts, are widely known because they affected so many during a brief period: more than 200 accused of practicing witchcraft—20 of them (14 women and six men) executed during just four months in 1692, including eight on the single day of September 22, and another four dying in jail. The executions of alleged witches in Salem were the last in what is now the U.S., but they took place in other colonies as well. In Hartford, Connecticut, for instance, authorities hanged 11 people between 1647 and 1662. Witch trials and convictions (but no further executions) continued until 1697. In 1878, Salem was back in the news with what seems to be the last witchcraft trial in the nation, though a judge dismissed the charges. Of course, the American experience pales in comparison to what occurred in Europe from the 14th through the 17th centuries, when authorities executed tens of thousands of suspected witches. —James Deutsch, program curator, Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage

Q: Will the James Webb Space Telescope be able to look for evidence that other intelligent life is out there? Bill Brown | Choctaw, Oklahoma

There are several ways the Webb Telescope could detect signs of intelligent life. First, it could study interstellar objects that arrive from outside the solar system to see if they might be extraterrestrial spacecraft. Second, it could search for city lights on the night side of habitable planets around nearby stars. And third, it could search for industrial pollution in the atmospheres of planets. —Avi Loeb, director, Institute for Theory and Computation, Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian

Q: Do scientists have any idea what sound a dodo made? There’s a TV commercial that features a dodo sounding like a chicken. Stephen Herte | Queens Village, New York

I always get asked this question, and the answer is still open to debate. Dutch Freelanders in Mauritius called the bird dodaersen. Englishman Thomas Herbert, who visited Mauritius in 1629, was the first to use the name “dodo.” Many pigeons have a two-syllable “oh-oh” cry, which gets louder and deeper as the bird matures. So it’s possible Herbert created a version of the Dutch word that mimicked a two-syllable birdcall. —Julian Hume, independent researcher and Smithsonian collaborator

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This article is a selection from the October issue of Smithsonian magazine