The Aardvark, Africa’s Ant-eating Oddball

Africa is home to many amazing animals. It is the last bastion of megafauna, harboring a number of the largest land mammals on the planet. Vast herds of ungulates roam the savannahs, stalked by some of the world’s most iconic carnivores. Deadly reptiles and beautiful birds are found in tremendous diversity, and Africa is the cradle of mankind.  However, of all the beasts in the Dark Continent’s menagerie, perhaps is none is more peculiar than the aardvark.

Are aardvarks related to anteaters?

Despite having a great many physical features in common—strong claws, an elongated snout, a producible tongue—aardvarks and anteaters are not related. Anteaters are native to South America and are actually related to sloths and armadillos.  Their similar morphology and behavior is the result of convergent evolution. Aardvarks not not have any close living relatives and they are the sole extant member of the Orycteropodidae family. A number of species are known from the fossil record.

How big is an aardvark?

Aardvarks are not particular large animals. A typical specimen is around four feet long, not including the up to yard-long tail, stands around two feet at the shoulder, and weighs between 130 and 180 pounds. Their body shape is somewhat similar to a pig’s and coupled with their long snout, gives rise to the name aardvark which is Africaans for “earth pig.”

Where do aardvarks live?

The aardvark is widely distributed across sub-Saharan Africa. It prefers grassland and woodland habitats, although it can be found in other environments as well. Habitats that do not facilitate the digging of burrows, such as rocky areas and swamps, are avoided by aardvarks. They are nocturnal animals that spend the daylight hours sleeping burrows that be over 40 feet long. Abandoned aardvark burrows are used as shelter by a variety of other species including warthogs, mongooses, wild dogs, monitor lizards, snakes, and even bats.

What do aardvarks eat?

Like the anteater it so strongly resembles the aardvark is a myrmecophage, a type of insectivore that specializes in preying on ants and termites. The aardvark has a total of nine olfactory bulbs in its snout, the most of any mammal, and it uses its acute sense of smell to hunt although it also possess keen hearing.  The can cover up to 18 miles foraging. Once an insect nest has been located, the aardvark uses its powerful claws to rip it open. It can seal its nostrils while digging to prevent the inhalation of debris. Using its long tongue, an aardvark can lick up as many as 50,000 insects in a single night. They do not chew their food, relying on a muscular gizzard to crush it instead. Unlike anteaters aardvarks do have teeth, although they are very different from the teeth of other mammals. They lack enamel and roots, are made up of multiple pulp cavities cemented together rather than a single one, regrow continuously, and consist solely of cheek teeth in adult aardvarks. The only other food that the aardvark is known to eat is a plant known as the aardvark cucumber. These two species have a symbiotic relationship. The plants grow in aardvark burrows and their seeds cannot germinate without having passed through an aardvark’s intestinal tract. The fruit is an important source of water for aardvarks.

Do aardvarks have any predators?

Aardvarks are preyed upon by big cats, hyenas, wild dogs, and pythons. They rely on their hearing any smell to avoid danger and can also dig rapidly to escape. Their thick hide can act as protection but if pressed fails an aardvark will defend itself violently. It can use its raw bulk and tail to batter foes, and they are known to sometimes flip upside-down to strike with all four feet simultaneously. From this position an agitated aardvark can do a incredible amount of damage, potentially even disemboweling an attacker. Humans sometimes hunt aardvarks for their meat, which is said to taste somewhat like pork, but they are not considered endangered.