Orycteropus afer

aardvark

Derivation of scientific name

The species name Orycteropus was derived from the Greek word orykteropous, which means digging- or burrowing-footed. The species name, afer, refers to Africa.

Common names:Aardvark, ant bear (Eng.); Aardvark (Afr.); sambane (Zulu).

The aardvark, Orycteropus afer, is one of a few animals that can be mistaken for a domestic pig. It can, however, be distinguished by the fact that it’s smaller in size than a domestic pig and has a very thick skin without any subcutaneous fat. The aardvark also has a long nose, rabbit-like ears and a kangaroo-like tail.

How to recognise an aardvark

The aardvark is medium-sized, 1.05–2.20 m in length, and weighs between 60 and 80 kg. They have almost hairless bodies, which are pale yellowish-grey in colour and often stained reddish-brown by the soil they dig/burrow in. Their somewhat elongated snouts make them look distinctly pig-like at first, and they have a thick skin that both protect them from the hot sun and from being harmed by insect bites.

They have tubular, rabbit-like ears that can stand on end, but which can also be folded flat to prevent dirt from entering them when they are burrowing underground. Aardvarks have strong claws on each of their spade-like feet, which, along with the fact that their hind legs are longer than their front legs, assist with their burrowing habit.

Getting around

The aardvark is known to be a good swimmer, but otherwise moves fairly slowly. When moving around they pause at the entrance of a burrow for about ten minutes, sniffing and listening. After this period of watchfulness, they will bound out of the hole, and within seconds be 10 metres away. It will then forage for food.

Habitat

The only major habitat type that they are not present in is swamp forest, as the high water table precludes digging to a sufficient depth. They also avoid terrain rocky enough to cause problems with digging. They have been documented as high as 3 200 metres above sea level in Ethiopia.

They are found widely in southern and sub-Saharan Africa, wherever the soil is suited to their burrowing lifestyle. These exceptions include the coastal areas of Namibia, Ivory Coast and Ghana.

aardvark 1 Communicating

Aardvarks are solitary animals and communicate mostly by scent. They are rather quiet animals, although they do make soft grunting sounds as they forage, and loud grunts when they make for the entrance to its tunnel entrance. If threatened, the aardvark will make a bleating sound. When two animals meet (male/female), they spend a short time sniffing each other, especially around the base of the tail, before moving on separately. If sexual interest is shown, the interaction may last longer.

Distribution

Aardvarks are found mostly in Africa south of the Sahara, being found almost anywhere where suitable food and soils are available.

Within a habitat type, aardvarks will be found mostly in flat or gently sloping areas. In the Karoo in South Africa, where long term studies have been conducted, aardvark densities are approximately eight animals per thousand hectares (Taylor & Skinner 2003). Home ranges vary between 200 and 400 ha.

Food

Aardvarks are myrmecophagous. They mostly eat ants and termites, which they dig out of the ground and are also known to eat the pupae of dung beetles (Scarabaeidae). They may also eat other insects occasionally. Aardvarks spend almost all their time searching for food, and feed from many (± 200) ant and termite nests each night.

Most feeds are short, lasting less than two minutes, but feeds from larger termitaries may last over 30 minutes. There are always ants or termites left active on the surface or in the nest at the end of a feed, probably because of diminishing returns. Also, prey becomes less accessible when on the surface because the aardvarks tongue is adapted to removing them from small tunnels.

Most preyed-on animals have chemical and mechanical defences and so does ants. This plays an important role in the feeding behaviour of myrmecophagous mammals, but these defence mechanisms of termites and ants have no effect on aardvarks.

Sex and life cycles

Male and female aardvarks have genitals that secrete a powerful musk, as well as scent glands on their elbows and hips. These glands may play a role during mating. Gestation last for period of about seven months, after which one offspring will be born naked, hairless and with eyes open. They remain in the burrow for at least two weeks and then begin to follow their mother around at two weeks of age.

The mother normally nurses them until they are three months old, at which time they begin to eat insects. At about age six months, they become independent of the mother, and at about two years old, they become sexually active. Aardvarks live to be about 18 years of age.

Family life

Orycteropodidae is a family of mammals that feed on ants, but do not live with them. Although there are many fossil species that have been discovered, the only surviving species today are members of the family Orycteropodidae. Orycteropodidae are polygynous, meaning one male are surrounded by multiple female groups; the females providing care for the young.

They are territorial, and the male’s genitals secrete musk while females secrete musk from glands in their elbows. This scent helps mating occur. Breeding occurs once a year and they produce one offspring. Females will have maybe one to two more offspring during their lifetime.

Conservation status

Aardvarks are categorised as Least Concern by the 2002 South African IUCN Red List; however, their habitat have been destroyed in many agricultural areas. They are Vulnerable in all settled areas and Endangered or Extinct in areas with a high concentration of people.

They are often hunted by farmers and ranchers who find their hole digging inconvenient or dangerous. Cultivation and pesticide use has resulted in the elimination of their food source in some areas.

Friends and foes

Although aardvarks do not interact directly with other species, indirectly they do have an impact through their burrows, many of which remain unused by aardvarks and are available for other species to use.

These burrows provide sleeping shelter for many species, including warthogs, porcupines, jackals and black-footed cats. They are even known to provide roosts for bats.

aardvark 2 Smart strategies

Aardvarks have very strong feet and claws, which look like spades, which they use for the fast digging of underground burrows and for digging up large and deep termite mounds to feast on the insects within.

Their tough thick skin protects them from bites whilst their wormlike tongue can be up to 30.5 cm long and is sticky so as to trap up to 50 000 termites and ants in one night. They also use their tails for protection.

Poorer world without me

Aardvarks play a crucial role in the ecosystem as a whole as they provide habitats for other animal species that are sensitive to certain temperature changes.

They also provide habitat (e.g. hiding, resting and sleeping sites) to animals that are not able to dig their own burrows. Aardvarks reduce the termite harvesting of crops and browsable grass layer availability.

Threat to aardvarks

Aardvarks have several natural enemies, including: dogs, pythons, cheetahs, leopards, lions and warthogs, which will eat the young. To protect themselves against such enemies, they have several lines of defense.

They can run, dig a hole and hide in it, or defend themselves with their tail and long claws. Man is their worst enemy, killing them for food, their tough hide, or to be used as good luck charms. They are vulnerable to crop farming.

People and I

In African tribes aardvarks are seen as a very important as they use the animals body parts for various magical-medicinal reasons. Some of the body parts are used for charms, whereas the teeth are believed to heal various illnesses.

References

Anon 2013. All About Aardvarks. Easy Science for Kids. Online Science Tutor for Kids. Retrieved 2016-11-18.

Van Aarde, R.J. 1984. .Aardvark. In Macdonald, David, The Encyclopedia of Mammals. New York, NY: Facts on File Publications. ISBN 0-87196-871-1.

http://www.aardvarkafrica.org/ecological_importance.htm

IUCN Red List (June, 2008) http://www.iucnredlist.org/

Whittington-Jones, G.M. 2006 The role of aardvarks (Orycteropus afer) as ecosystem engineers in arid and semi-arid landscapes of South Africa. Thesis, Rhodes University.

Author: Bathabile Ndlovu
Conservation Gardens and Tourism
June 2017

Official common name: Aardvark

Scientific name and classification

Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order:
Tubulidentata
Family: Orycteropodidae
Genus: Orycteropus
Species: O. afer (Pallas, 1766).

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