The strange looking and almost mythical Aardvark (Orycteropus afer) is undoubtedly one of Africa’s most interesting animals. It plays a significant part in African folklore and mythology, and is believed to bring good luck to anyone that is lucky enough to see one. It is also a symbol of strength and resilience in various African cultures.
The name Aardvark is actually Afrikaans, and means “earth pig” or “ground pig”, probably because of its habit of burrowing into the soil for a home. Aardvarks are also known as ‘antbears’, ‘anteaters’, ‘Cape anteater’ and ‘earth hogs’. The name Orycteropus means burrowing foot, and the name afer refers to Africa. Aardvarks belong to the genetic group of mammals called afrotheres, along with elephants, golden moles, hyraxes, tenrecs and other related mammals. Scientists actually classify the Aardvark genetically as a living fossil!
The Aardvark is vaguely pig-like in appearance, typically between 100 and 130 centimetres (3 to 4 ft) long (without its tail) and weighing about 40 to 80 kilograms (90 to 180 lbs). Its body is stout with a prominently arched back and is sparsely covered with coarse bristle-like hairs. Normally an Aardvark will be of a colour similar to the soil in the area in which it lives. It has strong legs equipped with spade-like claws. The kangaroo-like tapered tail can be up to 70 cm (28 in) long. The greatly elongated head is set on a short, thick neck, and the end of the snout bears a disc, which houses the nostrils, boasting super sensitive smell organs. The mouth is small, with a thin, snakelike, protruding tongue (as much as 30 centimetres (12 in) long). Lastly, its tubular ears are disproportionately large and very effective, whereas its eyes are very small. A strange creature indeed!
Aardvarks are found all over sub-Saharan Africa in suitable habitats, like grassland savannah and open woodland. They avoid swamps, very rocky areas and coastal forests. These solitary animals spend the daylight hours in dark underground burrows to avoid the heat of the day, and almost exclusively come out at night to walk around in search of food. They feed almost exclusively on ants and termites. They may walk several kilometres to feeding grounds each night, walking around seemingly aimlessly, with their noses to the ground. Once they locate an ant or termite colony they rip into it with their claws and feed away, consuming up to 50,000 in one night! They will occasionally snack on a plant called the Aardvark Cucumber, a plant completely reliant on the Aardvark to uncover their fruit and propagate the seeds.
Aardvarks pair only during the breeding season; after a gestation period of seven months, one cub weighing around 1.9 kilograms (4.2 lbs) is born during May to July. The little one is able to leave the burrow to accompany its mother after only two weeks and eats termites at 9 weeks, and is weaned between three months and 16 weeks.
Luckily these incredible mammals are classified as least concern from the IUCN. However, they are not easily seen on safari in Africa, due to their nocturnal habits and shy, skulking behaviour. They are in a precarious position, as they are so dependent on such specific food, that if a problem arises with declining termites numbers, the species as a whole could be in trouble. Other potential threats include the bushmeat trade, subsistence hunting and habitat loss due to agriculture.