The name aardvark comes from a word meaning “earth pig.”
Aardvarks are insectivorous mammals found in much of sub-Saharan Africa. On the basis of similar diet and morphology Aardvarks were once classified as close to South American anteaters and pangolins, but it is now accepted that these similarities are the result of convergent evolution rather than common descent.
The aardvark has a short neck connected to a massive, almost hairless body with a strongly arched back. The legs are short, the hind legs longer than the front ones. The head is elongated, with a long, narrow snout and nostrils that can be sealed. The long, tubular ears are normally held upright but can be folded and closed. The short but muscular tail is cone-shaped and tapers to a point. The thick claws on the forefeet are well adapted for digging. Aardvarks have poor eyesight and are colour blind, but have acute hearing and sense of smell.
Adult aardvarks weigh between 40 kg and 60 kg. Their total body length is about 1.5 m, but their hunched posture makes them appear shorter than this. They stand about 0.6 m at their lower back (the tallest point). Aardvarks are grey-brown in colour with a sparse pelage on the back and flanks. Hair on the legs is darker, and much thicker. They are digitigrade and have four toes on the front feet and five on the back feet, with strong claws on each toe. Males and females cannot be distinguished easily.
Aardvarks have a scent gland in their groin area that superficially resembles a scrotal sac (in both sexes), and produces a musk-like yellow secretion. This is used to signal the presence of the animal and may be used for territorial marking. Body temperatures varies between 34° C when they are inactive inside burrows and 37° C when they are active above ground.
Aardvarks are found in all regions, from dry savannah to rain forest, where there are sufficient termites for food, access to water and sandy or clay soil. If the soil is too hard, aardvarks, despite being speedy, powerful diggers, will move to areas where the digging is easier.
They preferentially use flat or gently sloping areas that are not too rocky, but may use steep slopes within their home ranges occasionally. Home ranges are between 200 and 400 ha but densities are always low. In South African grassland savannah densities of eight animals per thousand hectares were recorded. They are probably territorial, but this has not been studied yet.
Aardvarks are mostly solitary and nocturnal, but sometimes will come out during the day to sun themselves. When aardvarks sleep, they block the entrance to their burrow, leaving only a very small opening at the top, and curl into a tight ball. Especially during the rains, aardvarks may dig themselves new burrows almost nightly. Many animals, including ground squirrels, hares, civets, hyenas, jackals, porcupines, warthogs, monitor lizards, and birds use abandoned aardvark holes as shelter. When pursued, an aardvark will furiously dig itself a hole, and when attacked, may roll onto its back and defend itself with its large claws or use its thick tail to somersault away from its attackers. Aardvarks are also very capable swimmers.
During the day they use burrows to rest in. Although individual aardvarks typically excavate their own burrows, they more frequently renovate and utilize existing burrows when changing burrows. On average they use burrows for a week before moving on. They are active every night and while they are above ground they spend the whole time foraging for food. They do not vocalise, but instead indicate their presence by scent marking their home ranges with a scent gland.
As it is nocturnal and has poor eyesight, the aardvark is cautious upon leaving its burrow. Aardvarks usually wait until dark before they emerge from their burrows. Their night-time travels average one to 4 km but can range up to 29 km a night. It comes to the entrance and stands there motionless for several minutes. Then it suddenly leaps out in powerful jumps. At about 10 meters out it stops, raises up on its legs, perks up its ears and turns its head in all directions. If there are no sounds, it makes a few more leaps and finally moves at a slow trot to look for food.
Aardvarks give birth to one offspring at a time. The pinkish, hairless newborn stays inside the burrow for about 2 weeks and then begins to follow its mother in her search for food. The young first eats solid food at 3 months of age and is suckled until 4 months.
At about 6 months the young male becomes independent and goes off on its own, while the young female stays with the mother until after the next baby is born. The young female may then dig its own burrow a few yards away from its mother but still joins her to forage for termites.
Although not thought to be territorial, females seem to become attached to a particular place. The males wander more. Adult aardvarks are usually solitary, coming together only for mating.
Aardvarks are specialized for eating termites. They move from one termite mound to another, dismantling the hills with their powerful claws. Insects are trapped by the aardvark’s long protractile tongue (as long as 30 cm), which is covered with a thick, sticky saliva. Sometimes the aardvark will press its snout against an opening in a mound and suck up the termites. Aardvarks, with their keen sense of smell, also hunt for the long columns of termites that move outside the mounds at night. On occasion, Aardvarks will also eat other invertebrate prey, such as dung beetle larvae.
Predators and Threats
The adult aardvark’s principal enemies are human (who sometimes kill it for meat), lions, hyenas and leopards; pythons also take the young. Aardvark flesh is relished by several African tribes and many parts of the aardvark body are used as charms: the teeth are believed to prevent illness.