Down to Earth

By Gordon Fordyce and Marka Mashele

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aardvark walking at night
Photo by Gordon Fordyce and Marka Mashele

The aardvark

(or ant bear as it is also known) is arguably one of the most peculiar creatures on MalaMala Game Reserve and it is probably the one that you are least likely to see. Most people don’t know very much about this odd looking animal besides the fact that its name is always the first word in a dictionary and that it has often been portrayed in kids cartoons over the years. This lack of knowledge is mainly due to its very shy nature and secretive, nocturnal habits. In addition, they generally perform poorly in captivity which also adds to the enigma that is the aardvark.

Aardvarks are endemic to the continent of Africa and they are the only living member of their Order and family classification. They are typically coloured the same as that of the soil in the area where they live as they spend a large amount of time underground and otherwise burrowing and digging. An aardvark is about the size of a small pig and weighs in at about 50-82 kilograms( 110-180 lbs). They have a thick chunky body, long pig-like snout, short powerful legs and a kangaroo-like tail. They appear mostly bare skinned but the sparse hair on their legs is darker in colour than that on the head and the rest of the body. They also have long pointed ears that add to its weird visage. Front legs end in long hoof-like claws which are brilliantly suited to their digging habits and they have four toes on the front feet, but five on the hind feet. The scientific name of this bizarre creature has a very straight forward meaning. Orycteropus directly translated means “digging foot” and the order, Tubulidentata means “tubular toothed”.

One of the most interesting characteristics of the aardvark, and part of the reason for its classification, is the design of their teeth. Instead of having a regular pulp cavity in each tooth, they have a number of thin tubes of dentine (calcified tissue created by the body). Each of these thin tubes containing dentine are held together by cementum, which is a specialized calcified substance that normally covers the root of a mammalian tooth. The aardvark’s specialized teeth have no enamel coating and are worn down by feeding over time but they grow continuously.

The aardvark is predominantly a nocturnal creature, often only emerging from the safety of its burrow late at night to forage and feed, although in some areas where predator numbers are low, they will often forage during the day when it is overcast. They are generally very shy animals and will scamper away at the slightest sign of danger. Their diet consists mainly of ants during the dry season (when ants are most active) and then mainly termites in the wet season (when termites are most active). They locate large concentrations of these insects by using their greatly refined sense of smell and then by using their powerful legs and long, sharp claws to dig open the insect’s nests.

Aardvarks forage and search for prey in a peculiar manner, zigzagging across the veld, sniffing out columns of termites/ants moving above ground. Once a good concentration of these insects has been found (indicating close proximity to their nest), those on the surface will quickly be lapped up and it will then dig for more. Aardvarks employ sustainable feeding tactics as they will regularly feed from the same mounds repeatedly but often leave a few days/weeks in between specific feedings to give those mounds or colonies a chance to recover.

They have an incredibly long sticky tongue (up to 12 inches), which darts in and out of its mouth collecting prey and swallowing them with little or no chewing. Aardvarks have been known to consume up to fifty thousand ants and termites each night. They also have a stomach which is specially designed for digesting and breaking down insects, very similar to a bird’s gizzard. They will often feed on multiple species of ants and termites to fulfill their fairly stringent nutritional needs. The aardvark has fairly tough skin to protect itself from the biting and stinging defenses of ants and termites on which it feeds. Their nose is protected from dust and insect bites by special hairs inside the nose. It also has thick, hard facial bristles which help protect its eyes while digging. Their large, rotatable ears are very efficient at detecting any potential predators, but are also specifically designed for digging because they conveniently fold away against their bodies so that no dirt gets into them.

The aardvark can dig with enormous force and speed when necessary and will sometimes use this as a means to escape a predator. Also, their burrows are sometimes quite intricate and can have up to 8 entrance holes and can be dug down to 6 meters deep. They are designed specially to be wide enough to accommodate only the aardvark, thus to keep out lions and large male leopards.

Aardvark’s are normally solitary animals, except for females which are sometimes accompanied by one or two young of different ages. It is even rare to see droppings of these animals as they often bury their faeces. They will dig a shallow hole in which they then defecate and proceed to cover the droppings with soil as to hide their presence more effectively.

They will mark out favourite mounds by scent marking the area with secretions from glands in the groin area. Because these animals are mostly nocturnal, they will usually be back in their burrows before dawn and will only rarely emerge from their holes in the mornings to bask in the sun after a particularly cold night.

The discarded burrows are often used by a variety of other creatures including many different species of mammals like hyena, jackals, badgers, porcupines and other rodents, reptiles like monitor lizards, tortoises, pythons and other snakes and even certain types of birds.

Aardvarks are generally found throughout sub-Saharan Africa and especially in areas where termites and ants are found in abundance year-round. Areas which have very hard or stony soils are not suitable for them to live in, nor are any locations which are prone to flooding. Aardvarks will often walk great distances each night, not only to cover enough ground and find enough insects to eat, but also due to the fact that soil type requirements for their housing burrows are often quite different to the soil types preferred by termites and ants for their nests. So a lot of ground must be covered to travel between these different habitats. Aardvarks are not dependant on fresh water because they can normally acquire all of their moisture from the insects that they feed on. However, they will drink regularly if fresh water is readily available.

A new study says hotter temperatures caused by climate change are taking their toll on the aardvark, whose diet of ants and termites is becoming scarcer because of reduced rainfall. We hope that this bizarre yet fascinating species will endure through the tough times and that we, as a species, will reduce our impact on the climate.

Travelling to MalaMala