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Aardvark: Characteristics, Diet, Facts & More [Fact Sheet]

Welcome to our comprehensive guide on the aardvark, an animal as unique as its name. The aardvark, also known as the “antbear,” is a remarkable creature that captivates animal lovers and scientists alike with its peculiar characteristics and intriguing behaviors.

The aardvark’s world revolves around its diet of ants and termites, influencing many aspects of its physical attributes, behavior, and lifestyle. This nocturnal mammal, predominantly found in sub-Saharan Africa, boasts a distinct appearance that sets it apart in the animal kingdom.

In the following sections, we delve into the fascinating world of the aardvark, exploring its various aspects from its different species to its critical role in the ecosystem. Whether you’re an enthusiastic wildlife explorer or a curious reader, join us on this enlightening journey as we unravel the mysteries and marvels of the aardvark.

The Aardvark at a Glance

Classification

Kingdom:Animalia
Phylum:Chordata
Class:Mammalia (Mammals)
Order:Tubulidentata
Family:Orycteropodidae
Genus:Orycteropus
Species:O. afer

Essential Information

Average Size:3.3 to 4.3 ft in length, excluding the tail
Average Weight:110 to 180 lbs
Average Lifespan:Up to 23 years in the wild
Geographical Range:Sub-saharan Africa
Conservation Status:Least Concern (IUCN Red List)

Species and Subspecies

The aardvark, scientifically known as Orycteropus afer, is the only extant species in the order Tubulidentata. Interestingly, this unique mammal does not share close taxonomic relationships with any other species, standing as a testament to evolutionary individuality.

While 17 subspecies of the aardvark have been named, they are not very well defined and not widely accepted as valid.

There is notable variation in size and color among individuals based on their geographical locations. For instance, the aardvarks in East Africa tend to be lighter in color than those found in Southern Africa. These variations, however, may not constitute enough differentiation to classify them as separate subspecies.

It’s important to note that there are several extinct species and genera within the order Tubulidentata, which include ancestral forms of the modern aardvark. These extinct relatives provide valuable insights into the evolutionary history of this singular mammal.

Aardvark at Chester Zoo

Description

The aardvark’s body length ranges from 3.3 to 4.3 feet, not including the tail, which can add an additional 2 feet. They typically weigh between 110 to 180 pounds, making them medium-sized mammals.

One of the most distinctive features of the aardvark is its elongated, pig-like snout, which houses a powerful sense of smell to detect food. The aardvark’s ears are disproportionately large, similar to those of a rabbit, which helps them detect sounds of predators and prey.

The aardvark’s body is stout and arched, with a short neck and a long, muscular tail. Its skin is thick and tough, providing protection from the bites of ants and termites, its primary food sources. The color of an aardvark can vary from pale yellowish-gray to reddish-brown, depending on the soil of its environment.

The aardvark’s legs are sturdy and strong, equipped with formidable claws designed for efficient digging. The front feet have four toes, while the hind feet have five toes. When it comes to locomotion, the aardvark is a competent swimmer and a proficient digger, capable of creating burrows for shelter and food foraging.

In terms of sexual dimorphism, there’s not a significant difference between male and female aardvarks in terms of physical appearance.

Males tend to be slightly larger than females, but this size difference is not drastic and can be challenging to discern without direct comparison or measurement. Other than size, both sexes share the same distinct physical characteristics that make the aardvark such a unique species.

Aardvark burrow

Habitat and Distribution

The aardvark’s geographical distribution and choice of habitat are primarily influenced by the availability of ants and termites, their primary food source.

The geographical distribution of aardvarks is expansive, covering much of sub-Saharan Africa. They range from Senegal on the west coast of Africa, across the continent to Sudan and Ethiopia in the east, and as far south as South Africa.

However, it’s important to note that their distribution is not continuous but patchy, largely dependent on the availability of suitable habitats and food sources.

Aardvarks are highly adaptable creatures when it comes to their habitat. They can be found in a variety of environments, including grasslands, savannas, woodlands, and bushland. They prefer areas that have a good supply of ants and termites, and the soil type needs to be suitable for digging, as they excavate burrows for living and breeding.

Aardvarks are also known to be excellent swimmers, and they can dig to escape floods, showing their adaptability to various conditions. However, they tend to avoid excessively rocky areas or those with heavy, clay-like soils that are not conducive to digging.

Aardvark on hind legsSource: Richard Gillin / Flickr

Behavior

Aardvarks are primarily nocturnal animals, which means they are most active during the night. Their nocturnal habits help them avoid the heat of the day, and also help them stay hidden from predators.

During the day, they typically stay within their burrows, which they dig with their powerful legs and sharp claws. These burrows can be up to 33 feet long and are often reused by various other species, underscoring the aardvark’s key role in its ecosystem.

Aardvarks are also known for their extraordinary digging capabilities. When threatened, they can dig their way underground swiftly, leaving predators at a loss.

Social Structure

In terms of social structure, aardvarks are predominantly solitary creatures. They typically only come together to mate and do not form packs or herds.

Each aardvark maintains its own territory, which can be quite expansive, spanning several miles. Territories of both genders may overlap, but interactions outside of mating are rare.

Communication

Communication among aardvarks is mostly tactile and olfactory. They rely heavily on their keen sense of smell to locate food sources, potential mates, and detect the presence of predators. They mark their territories with secretions from a gland under the tail, helping to communicate their presence and status to other aardvarks.

Auditory communication also plays a role, particularly in mother-offspring interactions. The young aardvarks make soft grunting noises when nursing, and mothers will make a bleating sound if they sense danger, alerting their young to retreat into the burrow.

Where do aardvarks live - Hero

Diet and Feeding Behavior

The aardvark is a specialized feeder with a diet primarily focused on ants and termites. This makes it a myrmecophage – a term used for animals that mainly eat ants and termites.

While aardvarks are not carnivores in the conventional sense, they do feed almost exclusively on animal protein from ants and termites, placing them in a unique dietary category. They will occasionally supplement their diet with other insects, and have also been known to eat cucumber-like fruits called aardvark cucumbers, making them somewhat omnivorous.

The aardvark’s hunting and feeding behavior is as specialized as its diet. They use their keen sense of smell to locate termite mounds and ant nests, and then employ their powerful claws to break into them. Once they’ve opened up a termite mound or ant nest, they use their long, sticky tongue, which can reach up to 12 inches in length, to collect and eat the insects.

Their thick skin protects them from insect bites, and they have a specialized muscular valve in the nose that can close to keep out dust and insects. Despite their diet, aardvarks are not dependent on water and can get most of their moisture from the insects they eat.

This highly specialized diet and hunting behavior have allowed aardvarks to exploit a food source that few other animals can, reducing competition and allowing them to carve out their unique niche in the ecosystem.

Baby aardvarkSource: heights.18145 / Flickr

Reproduction and Life Cycle

Aardvarks are solitary creatures, but they come together to mate. The mating season usually coincides with the rainy season when food is more abundant. During this time, males will traverse their large territories to find females and may even fight with other males for mating rights.

After mating, the gestation period for aardvarks lasts approximately seven months. It’s typically a bit longer than what’s common for other mammals of a similar size. This extended gestation period results in the birth of a more developed offspring, which is beneficial given the solitary nature of aardvarks.

Aardvarks usually give birth to one offspring at a time, although rare instances of twins have been recorded. At birth, the baby aardvark (called a cub) is relatively well-developed. It can open its eyes, has a full coat of hair, and its ears are erect.

For the first two weeks, the cub remains in the burrow, and the mother feeds it milk. After about two weeks, the young aardvark starts to follow its mother out of the burrow during her nightly foraging trips. It starts eating termites at about 14 weeks and is weaned by 16 weeks.

The young aardvark will stay with the mother until the next mating season, at which point it will set off to establish its own territory. Aardvarks reach sexual maturity around two years of age and will then begin their own cycle of mating and reproduction.

Through this life cycle, aardvarks ensure the survival of their species, each new generation playing a crucial role in maintaining the ecological balance of their habitat.

Aardvark Sleeping at Chester Zoo

Conservation and Threats

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the aardvark is currently classified as a species of ‘Least Concern.’ This means that the aardvark is not currently considered threatened or endangered.

Despite their peculiar and somewhat mysterious nature, aardvarks have managed to maintain a strong presence across their geographical range. However, they face certain challenges that require ongoing conservation attention.

Although aardvarks are not currently endangered, they face several threats that could potentially impact their population numbers in the future. These include habitat loss due to agricultural expansion, hunting for their meat and hides, and climate change which can lead to changes in their food supply.

The aardvark’s diet is highly specialized, so any decline in ant or termite populations due to changes in climate or habitat could potentially impact aardvark populations. The aardvark’s nocturnal and burrowing habits also make it vulnerable to traffic-related deaths.

Conservation efforts for aardvarks mainly involve habitat preservation and legal protection from hunting. These measures aim to prevent further decline in aardvark numbers and ensure the survival of this unique species.

While aardvarks do not usually feature prominently in conservation programs due to their ‘Least Concern’ status, they nonetheless benefit from broader wildlife conservation efforts that protect natural habitats.

Fun Facts

Aardvarks are indeed fascinating creatures. Here are some fun facts about these unique mammals that you might not know:

  1. Name Origin: The name ‘aardvark’ comes from the Afrikaans/Dutch words ‘aarde’ (earth) and ‘vark’ (pig), which translates to ‘earth pig.’ This name references the aardvark’s robust digging skills and pig-like snout.
  2. Lonely Lineage: The aardvark is the only living species in the order Tubulidentata. That means it has no close relatives left alive today!
  3. Tongue Length: An aardvark’s tongue can reach up to 12 inches in length – that’s as long as a ruler! It’s long and sticky, perfect for lapping up their favorite meals of ants and termites.
  4. Aardvark Cucumbers: In addition to ants and termites, aardvarks also love a certain type of fruit: the aardvark cucumber. They are the only known animals to eat this fruit, and in the process, they help disperse the seeds in their droppings.
  5. Adept Diggers: Aardvarks can dig incredibly fast. When escaping predators, they can dig a burrow large enough to hide in within just a few minutes. Their burrows are so large and well-constructed that they’re often used by other animals as well.
  6. Impressive Ears: Their ears, which can grow up to 9 inches long, are even longer than those of a rabbit!
  7. Lifespans: Aardvarks have a surprisingly long lifespan for mammals of their size. They can live up to 23 years in the wild and over 30 years in captivity.

Frequently Asked Questions

What does an aardvark eat?

Aardvarks primarily eat ants and termites. They occasionally supplement their diet with other insects and the aardvark cucumber, a type of fruit.

Where do aardvarks live?

Aardvarks inhabit a wide range of habitats in sub-Saharan Africa, including grasslands, savannas, woodlands, and bushland, wherever there is an ample supply of ants and termites for food.

Are aardvarks related to anteaters?

Despite their similar diet and some physical similarities, aardvarks are not closely related to anteaters. They are the only living species in the order Tubulidentata and have no close relatives left alive today. You can read our detailed article about aardvarks vs. anteaters.

Are aardvarks endangered?

According to the IUCN Red List, aardvarks are currently classified as a species of ‘Least Concern,’ meaning they are not considered threatened or endangered at present.

How long do aardvarks live?

Aardvarks can live up to 23 years in the wild. In captivity, where they are free from predators and have a consistent food supply, they can live over 30 years.

Can aardvarks swim?

Yes, aardvarks are surprisingly good swimmers! They have been observed swimming in natural bodies of water.

How fast can an aardvark run?

While not known for their speed, aardvarks can gallop at speeds up to 40 km/h when escaping predators or threats.

Other Articles To Learn More About The Aardvark

Top image: Wikimedia Commons

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