Colours of Wildlife: Aardwolf

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Willem is a wildlife artist based in South Africa. He says "My aim is simply to express the beauty and wonder that is in Nature, and to heighten people's appreciation of plants, animals and the wilderness. Not everything I paint is African! Though I've never been there, I'm also fascinated by Asia and I've done paintings of Asian rhinos and birds as well. I may in future do some of European, Australian and American species too. I'm fascinated by wild things from all over the world! I mainly paint in watercolours. . . but actually many media including 'digital' paintings with the computer!"

Aardwolf by Willem.

Here you have another critter for the beginning of the alphabet! This is an Aardwolf, Proteles cristata. The name means 'earth wolf' in Afrikaans. We also call it a 'maanhaarjakkals', meaning 'maned jackal'. Which might lead to some confusion with the 'maanhaarwolf' or 'maned wolf' of South America. The latter is however a true dog/jackal/wolf (those three really all being the same thing, scientifically speaking) while the aardwolf is something completely different. It is a relative of hyenas! Hyenas in turn are much more closely related to cats than to dogs.

An Odd and Hairy Hyena

Superficially, an aardwolf is somewhat reminiscent of the Striped Hyena which occurs from north and east Africa to Asia. I've even seen striped hyena photos mislabelled as aardwolves and vice versa. But aardwolves, though having a similarly shaggy, stripy fur, are much smaller than any kind of hyena, reaching a shoulder height of only about 50 cm/20" and a weight of 11 kg/about 25 lbs. They are more delicately proportioned also. But the greatest difference between aardwolves and true hyenas lies in their teeth! Hyenas have extremely powerful jaws and enormous cheek teeth, which they use for crunching up bones. Aardwolves by contrast have very, very weak cheek teeth. They're little more than thin, pointed pegs in fact! What use are such wimpy teeth?

Hunters of Termites

It turns out that aardwolves live on diets of insects! To be precise, they eat mostly termites. They hardly chew them at all, hence no need for strong teeth. Aardwolves are highly specialized to eat these abundant social insects of the African plains. The main species they feed on, are harvester termites, especially the snouted harvesters. Harvester termites eat grass, unlike other termites that feed on wood. The common harvester termites often feed by day. Unlike other termites, the workers of which have pale bodies and remain underground or concealed, building their muddy tunnels over the wood they consume, common harvester termites have dark coloration on their backs and heads, and often gather grass in the open during the daytime. But snouted harvesters are mostly nocturnal. Snouted harvester termites in particular have very weird soldiers. These have pointy squirt-bulbs on their heads! These bulbs actually seem to have taken over their whole heads, since they don't have jaws or eyes. From these the soldiers squirt sticky, noxious fluids on enemies. This yucky stuff deters almost everything – except for aardwolves!

Aardwolf by Willem.

It so happens that aarwolves do have one attribute shared with the proper hyenas: they have strong stomachs. In regular hyenas, this helps them deal with rotten meat and with bones. In aardwolves, this helps them tolerate the noxious chemicals in the termites. They hunt by night, when the snouted harvester termites are doing their grass-gathering (the soldiers marching alongside the workers to protect them). Aardwolves locate their prey by listening and smelling. Harvesters scurrying over the ground and snipping off stems of grass make so much noise even humans can hear them easily when they're most active. They occur in very large swarms in suitable grassland. Between the termites and other grazers, the grass gets cut quite short, making it easy for the aardwolves to find these little insects.

Once having found the termites, the aardwolf starts lapping them up. It has a big, broad tongue – though not as long as that of an aardvark – supplied with lots of sticky saliva. It laps the termites up and swallows them immediately, without chewing. In the process it also swallows quite a bit of sand, grit and soil. This may actually help grind up the termites in its belly! Aardwolf droppings can be recognized by the grit and termite remains in it.

Other than termites, aardwolves will eat other insects they encounter during their forays, such as moths, beetles and grasshoppers. They've been seen beside animal carcasses but their teeth are so weak that they can't even eat carrion, and they probably were looking for flies and maggots attracted by the rotting meat.

A Mostly Harmless Creature

Unfortunately, aardwolves have suffered from persecution. To humans, they look like jackals and some farmers think they will kill livestock. Aardwolves will not even kill or try to eat baby chicks. They're only harmful to insects.

Still, aardwolves can defend themselves against other critters. Though having almost no cheek teeth, they have small but sharp canine teeth. With this, they can bite back if anything attacks them. But they also rely on show. They have long, shaggy hair on their necks, backs and tails. They can fluff out their tails and raise the mane on their backs to suddenly make them seem twice as large, thus intimidating (hopefully) whatever threatens them. They also growl, bark and roar when fighting among themselves or when chasing competing species like jackals from their dens.

Their nocturnal lifestyles also keep them out of trouble. Even where they occur, most people have never seen them. Aardwolves occur mostly solitarily; even males and females that are mates, often forage independently. Only youngsters occasionally accompany their mothers. They patrol their territories in a zig-zag fashion, going from one termite colony to another. In a night's eating an aardwolf can gobble up half a million termites! The termites still manage to keep their colonies going; the termite queens churn out new babies as fast as the aardwolves and other termite-eating critters consume them.

As far as they go, aardwolves mark their territories. They do this by every 50 to 100 metres/yards pasting some of the scent secretions from their bums onto grass stalks or twigs. They also defecate in middens, first digging a trench and then defecating into it, then piling a bit of earth onto their droppings. These dung piles also carry the scent of their owners, further indicating territory possession.

Aardwolf homes are simply holes in the ground. Often they take over the burrows of aardvarks or other animals like bat-eared foxes; they can enlarge small burrows, or if nothing else at all is available, dig their burrows themselves. These go about 3 m/10' into the soil. They give aardwolves shelter during the daytime, as well as a place to give birth to their babies. Birthing time is typically in summer, and the female gives birth to two to four cubs. They are very cute, already having the stripes and mane of long fur at an early age. Their mother cares for them, and they leave the den and start playing outside, and accompany their mothers on excursions, at the age of six weeks or so. By four months they can forage on their own. In captivity, aardwolves have lived for more than twelve years.

Although aardwolves are rarely seen, they are reasonably common and widespread. They occur in two separate groups: one in southern Africa, and one in northeast Africa. These regions are both quite dry. The harvester termites they feed on, live in open, grassy areas. Aardwolves are absent in true desert, and in well-developed woodland or forest, where the trees block out too much light to allow the growth of much grass. In my painting you see the aardwolf patrolling a region dotted with the low mound hills of snouted harvester termites. Actually this painting is incorrect … the aardwolf would do its foraging by night, not by day! But I have to show you the aardwolf's true colours. But thanks to the magic of Photoshop, here you have another view, showing the aardwolf properly foraging in the dark!

Sometimes aardwolves are persecuted by humans not for fear that they might harm livestock, but for their own qualities. Specifically, the long, shaggy fur of an aardwolf has great insulating properties, and various peoples have traditionally hunted them to make fur blankets or coats from these pelts.

Aardwolf Relatives

As I've said before, aardwolves are relatives of hyenas. Indeed, they do much to complete our picture of hyena evolution. Though hyenas are very prominent and important members of savannah ecologies, today the family has been reduced to just a small remnant of its former diversity. Only three hyena species remain: the spotted, striped, and brown hyenas. Today, only the striped hyena is found outside of Africa. In the past, hyenas lived all over Europe and Asia, and there was even at least one species that made it into North America. Hyenas evolved from much smaller ancestors, that were very similar to the genets and civets that survive today. The aardwolf seems to be a surviving member of this smaller, more slender stock. It is not quite clear how long ago it diverged from the true hyenas. But its high level of adaptation to eating termites, seems to be a fairly recent innovation. Earlier aardwolf ancestors had a more typical carnivore dentition with well-developed cheek teeth in addition to their biting canine teeth. Probably, competition with more recently evolved, effective predators like jackals caused these to die out, while the aardwolf's extreme termite diet allowed it to survive. It doesn't compete much with other termite eaters like aardvarks and pangolins, these eating different species (pangolins eating ants as well) and using different foraging methods. If all goes well, aardwolves would be with us for much longer still.

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