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What are Aardvarks?

By S. Mithra
Updated May 21, 2024
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Aardvarks, the peculiar mammal from Africa, use chiseling claws and a sticky tongue to prey on termites. They occupy a unique order and species because they have strange teeth made of dentine, instead of enamel. As a prehistoric remnant, aardvarks are often incorrectly mistaken as anteaters.

You'd recognize aardvarks by their tough, grayish-brown skin with bristly hair and long, skinny snout. They also have rabbit-like rear legs used to hop more than walk, and agile front legs outfitted with specialized claws that dig burrows and disturb termite mounds. Their long, rodent-like tail that stretches to one third of their total length, helps clear dirt and balance the animal while hopping, like a kangaroo. Donkey ears, upright and large, allow them to hear the scratching of insect feet. With this mishmash of different animal's features, it's no wonder that the Boers of South Africa named the aardvark "earth pig" in Afrikaans.

Aardvarks roam over a variety of terrain, wherever the ground is soft enough to dig and termites plentiful enough to find. They are found across most of central and southern Africa in the plains, bush, woodlands, scrub, and savanna. While mostly solitary, they do meet during mating season. Mothers keep their offspring close for up to two years as they occupy adjacent burrows. These burrows are cozy and large, including several entrances and different rooms.

Their diet is comprised mostly of termites, supplemented by ants and other insects. A long, flexible tongue has evolved sticky saliva to catch many insects at once as it dives into a termite mound or rotting log. Nocturnal ardvarks generally hunt at night due to their colorblindness. Even still, they are threatened by large cats like leopards and lions, as well as hyenas, snakes, and, of course, humans. They measure around 6.5 ft (2 m) and weigh 80-140 lbs (36-64 kg).

Perhaps the strangest characteristic of aardvarks is their utterly unique teeth structure. They use molars to grind up the hard exoskeleton of insects for easier digestion. The teeth are made of hexagonal tubes of a hard material called dentine. All other animals with this kind of teeth, called primitive ungulates, became extinct 35 million years ago. This qualifies aardvarks as their own order, Tubulidentata, as well as a unique species, Orycteropus afer. Elephants are more closely related to aardvarks than are anteaters.

Frequently Asked Questions

What exactly is an aardvark?

An aardvark is a medium-sized, burrowing, nocturnal mammal native to Africa. It is the only species in the order Tubulidentata, characterized by its tubular teeth and long snout used for sniffing out food. Aardvarks are known for their diet primarily consisting of ants and termites, which they capture using their sticky tongue.

How do aardvarks contribute to their ecosystem?

Aardvarks play a crucial role in their ecosystem by controlling insect populations, particularly termites and ants. Their burrowing habits also contribute to soil aeration and the creation of habitats for other animals. By digging for food, they inadvertently turn over the soil, which can help with seed dispersal and the growth of new plants.

What adaptations do aardvarks have for their lifestyle?

Aardvarks possess several adaptations for their burrowing and insectivorous lifestyle. They have powerful limbs and claws for digging, a long, sticky tongue to capture insects, and a keen sense of smell to locate their prey. Their ears can close to keep out dirt while burrowing, and their skin is tough to protect against insect bites.

Are aardvarks endangered?

Aardvarks are currently listed as a species of Least Concern by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). However, they face threats from habitat destruction, hunting, and climate change. Conservation efforts are important to monitor their population and ensure that they do not move towards a more threatened status.

What do aardvarks eat and how do they find their food?

Aardvarks primarily eat ants and termites, which they find using their acute sense of smell. Once they locate a nest, they dig into it with their sharp claws and use their long, sticky tongue to collect the insects. They can consume up to 50,000 insects in one night, according to some estimates.

Can you keep an aardvark as a pet?

Keeping an aardvark as a pet is not advisable due to their specialized diet, nocturnal habits, and need for extensive burrowing. They are wild animals that require a specific habitat to thrive. Additionally, in many places, it is illegal to keep aardvarks as pets due to wildlife protection laws.

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