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Everybody knows that aardvarks are the first entries in animal encyclopaedias, and that they are weird-looking anteater-like creatures. Apart from that, the average bloke knows little else about them. That's a shame, because they are really interesting and fairly well known to science. So read on, and become aardvark-aware!


The aardvark's common English name comes from Afrikaans, and means 'earth pig' or 'dirt pig'. Strangely enough, Afrikaans has evolved since the name slipped into everyday usage and the current Afrikaans name for this animal is erdvark, where erd is, strangely again, an obsolete word, the current word for 'earth' or 'dirt' being aarde or grond. The scientific name is Orycteropus afer and means 'digging foot of Africa'. All of these names refer to the aardvark's ability to dig in the dirt, while the common names also note its pig-like appearance. An alternative English name is antbear. This name is uncommon, thankfully, as it is rather inappropriate; the aardvark eats termites as much as ants and is much more closely related (and similar) to pigs than to bears.


Aardvarks are very rarely seen, but their preposterous looks make any sighting a memorable experience. They are quite large - up to six foot long and 160 pounds in weight - with thick bodies. Their backs curve into a high domed arch and they have huge, funnel-shaped, thin, semi-transparent ears laced with pink veins. They also have long faces with a flat, pig-like snout; bright black eyes; a stout, tapered, kangaroo-like tail; and four sturdy legs with the spreading toes armed by sharp-edged spadelike claws. Their bodies range from almost naked to densely covered on top with long, thick, bristly hairs below. The limb hairs are usually darker than those on the back. Whatever their hair colour, aardvarks are usually tinged to the colour of the local soil. The skin is thick and tough. Internally they have massive skeletons with huge, compact muscles firmly anchored to their thick joints. They have thin, sticky tongues about 18 inches long and their teeth are small and without either roots or enamel.


Zoologists typically classify mammals according to their teeth. Because the Aardvark's teeth are so poorly differentiated, it was very difficult to classify it until recently. It was previously grouped with the Edentates, an order that includes the American armadillos, sloths and anteaters. Recently it has become clear that the aardvark is in fact most closely related to primitive ungulates. In its build it is very similar to the Condylarths, an ancient group of mammals that flourished from 70 to 50 million years ago and gave rise to all modern hoofed mammals. The aardvark is currently given an order of its own to mark its distinctiveness. This order is called the Tubulidentata after the small tube-like structures (tubules) that radiate through the weak dentine of its teeth. Extinct species of aardvark are known, some as old as 15 million years, but all very much similar to the modern one.


Aardvarks are limited to sub-Saharan Africa, where they live in grassland, savannah and woodland areas, avoiding only the dense, dark, damp rainforests around the Equator and the bleak Namib desert along the coast of south-western Africa.



Most people who live in Africa and have lived there all their lives have never seen an aardvark. This is true even in areas where they are common and where the people live close to the land. The reason why few aardvarks are seen is that they are very wary and almost entirely nocturnal, walking about only during the darkest time of the night. Occasionally one is seen at dusk or during the daytime, though. They occur singly, apart from young animals that stay with their mothers until they can fend for themselves. Aardvarks have large territories, often extending over many square miles. During the day they remain hidden deep underground in their burrows. A single aardvark usually has more than one living-burrow in its territory. These consist of underground tunnels 3 to 4 yards long, with a big sleeping chamber at the end. They close off the entrances behind them by pushing up a barrier of dirt, but occupied holes can be recognised by a swarm of small flies that hover around the entrance. Aardvark holes not in use are often taken over as shelters by a variety of mammals and reptiles. A number of bird species also make their nests in the roofs or walls of abandoned tunnels.

Aardvarks are strong - one guy tried to capture one above ground by grabbing its tail, but was dragged for 50 yards through a potato field before he had to let go. They can be caught in snares set in the mouths of their tunnels, but very heavy drag weights have to be attached to the lines or the aardvark gets away. Because they are so hard to capture, they are very rarely seen in zoos.


The digging ability of the aardvark is unrivalled. Loads of stories have been told about them, many of them utter exaggerations, but here are a couple of true ones. A single aardvark has been observed to dig faster than a team of six men armed with spades. Once a group of men attempted to capture one alive. It was spotted and immediately started digging. The men lassoed it with a rope tied to a horse. The horse couldn't get it out. Instead, the aardvark pulled the horse down onto the ground until its legs buckled below it and the rope had to be cut to relieve its distress. The next piece of info comes from The Mammals of the South African Subregion by Reay HN Smithers. A man with a team of helpers tried to dig out another aardvark. It was seen as it started to dig. When the men got to the place it was already gone from view, but they dug after it with their spades. After digging into the tunnel just created by the aardvark for a distance of 32 yards, they gave up. They were unable to keep up with it even though they only had to dig through the soil it had already loosened.

This is the aardvark's digging technique; it props itself up on its hind legs and tail and uses its shovel-clawed front feet to scoop out a huge wad of soil, then throws it backwards between its rear legs and kicks it away with the hind feet. It repeats this action very rapidly, and can vanish beneath the ground within seconds of being seen. All that is usually visible of this activity is a vast, animated cloud of dust and flying clods; when it settles, the aardvark is gone.

Holes dug by aardvarks sometimes cause problems for people. They often dig holes in road surfaces while searching for food, and vehicles can sustain serious damage when accidentally driven into these. Also they sometimes burrow into dam walls, causing them to weaken and occasionally give way.


Aardvarks eat termites and ants. Ants are rather tough and acid-drenched, but form a substantial element of aardvark diets during the dry season. Termites are softer bodied than ants, and live in huge nests built from grains of soil cemented with saliva. These termite hills are prominent features of the landscape in Africa. The walls of such a nest can be almost as hard as concrete, but the Aardvark uses its claws to rip them open. Once it has gained access to the busy inner area of the colony, it inserts its sticky tongue and laps them up. As it feeds, the termites retreat, so it digs in progressively deeper until almost its entire body is in the hole. To protect it from soldier termites, it folds its ears shut, closes its eyes and also closes up its nostrils by a special valve.

Aardvarks do not totally destroy any particular termite nest. Every night they set out on long walks to search for new sources of food. They can cover as much as 20 miles in a single night. They walk with their noses close to the ground and seem to use mainly their sense of smell. When digging they also rely on sensitive bristles around their noses and mouths to help them feel their way. Their vision seems to be poor; they will approach men with bright spotlights quite closely, but when they hear the slightest sound they will run away. The fact that they often bump into rocks and trees while trying to escape supports the hypothesis that they don't see very well.

Apart from termites and ants, aardvarks will eat other soft-bodied insects that they happen to find. They also eat fruit, for instance a terrestrial form of African wild cucumber. They can digest the soft flesh, but the seeds pass unharmed through their guts and into the rich manure and disturbed soil - excellent conditions for germination and growth.


So far, the mating habits of aardvarks haven't been observed in much detail in the wild. Once, a pair of adult animals were surprised apparently just before they would have mated - but nobody has ever seen much more than that. Mating seems to occur mostly in late summer to autumn, and the baby is born during the rainy period of the following Spring. Usually only a single offspring, weighing about four pounds, naked and wrinkled, is born. The female gives birth deep inside the main chamber of a permanent tunnel. There the baby is sheltered for two weeks, at which stage it starts accompanying the mother on feeding trips. After six months it is able to dig for itself, but stays close to the mother for a little while longer until it is confident and skilled enough to survive on its own.

Enemies and Threats

Lions, leopards, hyenas, hunting dogs, pythons and even badgers prey on aardvarks. Despite its strength the aardvark is vulnerable; its head, containing its delicate sensory organs, is unprotected and a hard blow can kill it instantly. To escape from enemies it digs itself into the ground. If it cannot manage to do so fast enough it will turn itself around and lash out with its claws. It is wary and uses its sense of hearing and smell to detect danger. If it is suspicious it will sit up on its hind legs, supported by its tail, sniffing and listening around.

Humans also hunt aardvarks on occasion. In times of widespread flooding, aardvarks have to emerge from their holes and sometimes sleep in prominent places above ground, where they can be found and killed easily. They are sometimes caught in traps set in the mouths of their holes. Their meat is reportedly quite tasty. Aardvarks are popular as sources of traditional medicines - their noses and claws especially are considered to be invested with strong powers. They are often killed by vehicles at night while crossing roads - and the carcases are usually found stripped of the vital parts by locals.

Even so, aardvarks cannot be considered to be globally threatened. Judging by the amount of fresh holes, they are quite common over very large regions. Still, just like any non-human species, they are vulnerable to human encroachment and come into conflict with people. Needless to say in the event of such clashes they often come a distant second - strong and fast as they are, they are no match for a bullet, nor can they defend themselves against wholesale habitat destruction. Therefore their continued survival and prosperity cannot be taken for granted. Their numbers must not be allowed to go into decline. Rather, people ought to go to great lengths to accommodate, protect and promote them in their local environments.

Not only is the aardvark a totally unique and fascinating creature, outstanding among all the other mammals, it is an ecologically important animal. A single aardvark, by its burrowing activity, provides living areas for many other animal species. Its disturbance of the soil is also important to many plant species. This again goes to show the ways that all living things are interdependent. If the aardvark goes, just like it did to that poor horse, it will drag a lot of other kinds of living creature down with it. Human beings of the world, open your eyes and see all the delightful creatures you share this marvellous planet with, and start appreciating them before it's too late.

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