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The aardvark

26 November 2015


The aardvark Orycteropus afer is a member of the Superorder Afrotheria which means that as did the African elephant, hyraxes, dugong, elephant shrew, golden mole and the tenrec (a type of hedgehog in Madagascar) it developed in Africa. Orycteropus is one of four genera in the Order Tubulidentata, three of those being extinct of which Plesiorycteropus madagascariensis of Madagascar is an aberrant form. A fossil form of the aardvark Orycteropus mauritanicus that is 2 million years old has been found in Algeria, North Africa and Myorycteropus africanus once lived in Kenya but it is poorly known as a few bones only. Only one species is currently alive and genetically the aardvark is a living fossil like the coelacanth. The fossil genus Leptorycteropus was not specialized to eats ants and termites and was probably omnivorous.


The name Tubulidentata refers to the tubule type of teeth of the members of this mammal order which is first known from fossils in Kenya where it lived 55 to 34 million years ago before spreading to Europe and the Near East Madagascar was once part of Africa. This name is derived from the Latin words tubuli for small tubes and dentis for tooth. A tubule tooth does not have a pulp cavity but consists of a cluster of up to 1500 elongated, thin, hexagonal, vertical, parallel tubes that are covered by a layer of cementum. The generic name Orycteropus is based on the Greek words orukter which means digging and pous which means foot and therefore means digging or burrowing foot, while afer is New Latin for Africa.

The aardvark swims well, and in African folklore it is admired for its diligent search for food and its lack of fear of soldier ants. Some indigenous healers make a charm from its heart, skin, forehead and nails which are pounded with the roots of a specific tree and is then worn against the chest in a pouch. It is believed to give the wearer the ability to pass through walls or roofs at night. Other tribes such as the Margbetu, Ayanda and Logo make good-luck charms from the nails of the aardvark. The Egyptian god Set is said by some to have had the head of an aardvark.

The Order Tubilidentata, of which the aardvark is the sole survivor, was first described scientifically by Huxley in 1872, and the aardvark was first described scientifically as Myrmecophaga afra by Pallas in 1766 and again as Myrmecophaga capensis by Gmelin in 1788 based on a specimen from the Cape of Good Hope. However this generic name, which refers to myrmecophagy or the eating of ants and termites, is taxonomically invalid for the aardvark because it was first used to describe the giant anteater Myrmecophaga tridactyla of Central and South America scientifically. Consequently, Georges Cuvier created the name Orycteropus in 1798 for the aardvark. The aardvark occurs in the savannas of Africa south of the Sahara and currently consists 17 subspecies which are poorly defined. There is no common name in English but a rough translation of aardvark is earth pig.

The aardvark has an elongated muzzle, large ears and stout digging claws on the feet. The yellowish-grey body is sparsely haired and superficially resembles that of a pig but its shape is unique among the mammals of Africa. It has much heavier hindquarters than forequarters and the body is arched. The heavy tail is thick and tapering, and much of it and the head are paler in colour than the body. The slit-like nostrils can be closed effectively against dust. There are five toes on the hind feet and four on the forefeet which have lost the thumb. The toes on the forefeet are long, spatulate and more curved than those on the hind feet. The legs are powerful and excellent digging tools. Both genders have scent glands which secrete a thick, yellow substance that is used in scent-marking. There is no apparent sexual differentiation in size, but males can weigh up to 65 kg and females up to 58 kg and their shoulder height is some 60 cm.

There is a wide habitat tolerance but the aardvark prefers open woodlands, scrub and grasslands with sandy ground although it will occur in heavier soils and hard ground. The aardvark is a solitary animal that is almost exclusively nocturnal in habits but it may move around in daylight during the winter. Most individuals, however, only emerge from a burrow after sunset when they start to forage continuously for five to seven hours in the winter and up to nine hours in the summer, covering up to 15 km per night in ranges with a mean size of up to 4.7 km2. When foraging, an aardvark moves around irregularly and slowly, with its nose close to the ground. The senses of smell and hearing are acute, but the eyesight not so. Moonlight and rainfall do not affect their activities. Excavations are made for feeding and shelter, and they will dig up to 1.5 m deep to raid the nests of harvester termites.

Burrows that are excavated for shelter are numerous and in the Tussen die Riviere Nature Reserve in the Free State there are as many as 101 burrows in an area of 1.5 ha. New burrows are seldom excavated as old ones will be renewed and expanded constantly. The burrow structure depends on the characteristics of the soil. There is an extensive system of tunnels which may end in chambers of 0.8 m high x 1.0 m wide where an aardvark can turn around as it always emerges head-first from a burrow. When an aardvark enters a burrow it closes the entrance with a plug of soil. The temperature some 1 m into a burrow varies from 3 to 10°C. An aardvark sleeps curled up in a chamber in a burrow with the tail and hind feet covering the snout, and can dig faster than a human.

The food consists of ants and termites, but ants are eaten mainly in the dry season and termites during the wet season although ants form a larger part of the annual diet. Up to 50 000 ants and termites can be eaten in a single night. Ants and termites are related taxonomically and they are eaten by inserting the long tongue into a nest. Aardvarks may also at times eat the pips of the wild cucumber Cucumis hemifructus which develop 150 to 300 mm underground but they cannot eat the tough rind. They may also sometimes eat the pupae of scarab beetles such as dung beetles which develop in dung that is buried underground. The food is apparently located by smell when exploratory digs are made. Foraging aardwolves may be accompanied by the Cape clapper lark Mirafra apiata, the ant-eating chat Myrmecocichla formicivora and the aardwolf Proteles cristatus as scavengers of surplus food. The aardvark will also occasionally drink water.

Little is known about reproduction in the aardvark but sexual maturity in a female seems to be reached at some 28 months of age. During mating the male attempts to hold the female in one place but she keps on foraging, causing long scratches on her back. It seems as though a single young weighing 1.7 kg is born in te late winter and spring in a maternity den at a time after a gestation period of 235 to 258 days but little is known of its development and dispersal. The female has two inguinal teats. A female in captivity gave birth to 11 young in a period of 16 years. Longevity in captivity is around 24 years.



Anon 2015. Aardvark https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Aardvark&oldid=688968659. Accessed 6 November 2015.

Skinner, J D & C T Chimimba (Eds) 2005. The mammals of the southern African subregion, third edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp 35 - 40.


article by Prof J du P Bothma



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