10 Facts About Aardvarks

How Much Do You Really Know About Aardvarks?

For many people, the oddest thing about aardvarks is their name, which has landed them on the first page of practically every A to Z kids' animal book ever written. However, there are some truly bizarre facts you should know about these African mammals, ranging from the size of their underground burrows to their predilection for the aardvark cucumber.

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The Name Aardvark Means Earth Pig

An aardvark emerges from its underground home
When the sun goes down, the nocturnal Aadvark leaves its burrow. Getty Images

Humans have coexisted with aardvarks for tens of thousands of years, but this animal only received its modern name when Dutch colonists landed on the southern tip of Africa in the middle 17th century and noticed its habit of burrowing into the soil (clearly, the indigenous tribes of this region must have had their own name for the aardvark, but that has been lost to history). The "earth pig" is occasionally referred to by other picturesque names, such as the African ant bear and the cape anteater, but only "aardvark" ensures its pride of place at the beginning of English dictionaries and comprehensive, A to Z lists of animals.

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Aadvarks Are the Sole Species of Their Mammalian Order

Skeletal remains of an aardvark that shows its back teeth
Skeletal remains of an aardvark that shows its back teeth. Getty Images

The 15 or so extant species of aardvarks belong to the mammalian order Tubulidentata, classified under the genus name Orycteropus (Greek for "burrowing foot"). Tubulidentatans evolved in Africa shortly after the dinosaurs went extinct, 65 million years ago, and even then they weren't abundant to judge by the presence of fossil remains (the most well-known prehistoric genus is Amphiorycteropus). The name Tubulidentata refers to the characteristic structure of these mammals' teeth, which consist of bundles of tubes filled with a protein called vasodentin, rather than more conventional molars and incisors (oddly enough, aardvarks are born with "normal" mammalian teeth in the front of their snouts, which soon fall out and are not replaced).

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Aadvarks Are the Size and Weight of Full-Grown Humans

Closeup of an aardvark standing in the dirt
Closeup of an aardvark. Getty Images

Most people picture aardvarks as being about the size of anteaters, but in fact, these mammals are fairly big—anywhere from 130 to 180 pounds, which puts them smack in the middle of the weight range for full-grown human males and females. As you can see for yourself by looking at any picture, aardvarks are characterized by their short, stubby legs, long snouts and ears, beady, black eyes, and prominently arched backs. If you manage to get close to a living specimen, you'll also notice its four-toed front feet and five-toed rear feet, each toe equipped with a flat, shovel-like nail that looks like a cross between a hoof and a claw.

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Aardvarks Dig Enormous Burrows

Two aardvarks near a burrow
Aardvarks are master diggers, creating burrows that can be up to 40 feet long. Getty Images

An animal as big as an aardvark needs a comparably roomy burrow, which explains why the homes of these mammals can measure up to 30 or 40 feet in length. A typical adult aardvark digs itself a "home burrow," where it lives most of the time, as well as various other, smaller burrows in the surrounding territory where it can rest or hide while foraging for food. The home burrow is especially important during mating season, providing valuable shelter for newborn aardvarks. After aardvarks vacate their burrows, either dying or moving on to greener pastures, these structures are often used by other African wildlife, including warthogs, wild dogs, snakes, and owls.

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Aardvarks Live in Sub-Saharan Africa

An aardvark walks in the grass
Some aardvarks can be found in the grasslands, while others in the bushlands, savvanahs, or mountains. Getty Images

You might imagine an animal as bizarre as the aardvark would have an extremely restricted habitat, but this mammal thrives across the expanse of sub-Saharan Africa and can be spotted in grasslands, bushlands, savannahs, and even the occasional mountain range. The only habitats aardvarks avoid are swamps and lowlands, where they can't burrow their holes to a sufficient depth without hitting water. Aardvarks are completely absent from the Indian Ocean island of Madagascar, which makes sense from a geologic perspective. Madagascar split off from Africa about 135 million years ago, long before the first tubulidentatans evolved, and it also implies that these mammals never managed to island-hop their way to Madagascar from the eastern coast of Africa.

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Aardvarks Eat Ants and Termites and Chew With Their Stomachs

An anteater sits on a log foraging for food
An anteater forages for food on a log, eating up to 30,000 ants and termites a day, while an aardvark devours even more—up to 50,000. Getty Images

A typical aardvark can devour up to 50,000 ants and termites a night, capturing these bugs with its narrow, sticky, foot-long tongue—and it supplements its insectivorous diet with bites of the aardvark cucumber, a plant that propagates its seeds via aardvark poop. Perhaps because of the unique structure of their teeth, aardvarks swallow their food whole and then their muscular stomachs "chew" the food into a digestible form. You will very rarely see an aardvark at a classic African watering hole; considering the number of predators that congregate there, that would be extremely dangerous. And in any case, this mammal derives most of the moisture it needs from its tasty diet.

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Aardvarks Have the Best Sense of Smell in the Animal Kingdom

An aardvark investigates a termite mound for its next meal
An aardvark investigates a termite mound for its next meal. Getty Images

You might think dogs have the best sense of smell of any animal, but your beloved pet has nothing on the average aardvark. The long snouts of aardvarks are equipped with around 10 turbinate bones, the hollow, seashell-shaped structures that convey air through nasal passages, compared with only four or five for canines. The bones themselves don't augment the aardvark's sense of smell; rather, it's the epithelial tissues that line these bones, which cover a much larger area. As you might imagine, the brains of aardvarks have especially prominent olfactory lobes—the groups of neurons responsible for processing smells—which enables these animals to sniff out ants and grubs from a long way away.

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Aardvarks Are Only Distantly Related to Anteaters

A giant anteater forages in the grass
A giant anteater forages in the grass. Getty Images.

Superficially, aardvarks look a lot like anteaters, to the extent that these animals are sometimes referred to as Cape anteaters. It's true that, as fellow mammals, aardvarks and anteaters share a distant common ancestor that lived about 50 million years ago, but otherwise they're almost completely unrelated, and any similarities between them can be chalked up to convergent evolution (the tendency for animals that inhabit similar ecosystems and pursue similar diets to evolve similar features). Tellingly, these two animals also inhabit two entirely different landmasses—anteaters are only found in the Americas, while aardvarks are restricted to sub-Saharan Africa.

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Aardvarks May Have Inspired the Egyptian God Named Set

The profile of the Egyptian deity known as Set reminds some of an aardvark
Some believe that the head of the Egyptian deity named Set looks like an aardvark. Wikimedia Commons

It's always a tricky matter to establish the origin stories of ancient deities, and the Egyptian god Set is no exception. The head of this mythological figure vaguely resembles that of an aardvark, which would make sense if, say, ancient Egyptian merchants brought back tales of aardvarks from their trading journeys south. Telling against this theory, though, Set's head has also been identified with donkeys, jackals, fennec foxes, and even giraffes (the ossicones of which may correspond to Set's prominent ears). In popular culture, sadly, Set is less well-known than the dog-headed Egyptian male deity Anubis and the cat-headed female deity Osiris, the backstories of which are much less mysterious.

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An Aardvark Was the Star of a Long-Running Comic Book

Comic book antihero character, Cerebus the Aardvark
Comic book antihero character, Cerebus the Aardvark.

ThoughtCo / Dave Sim

If you're a comic book fan, you probably know all about Cerebus the Aardvark, a short-tempered antihero whose adventures ran across a whopping 300 installments (ranging from the first issue, published in 1977, to the last issue, published in 2004). Oddly enough, Cerebus was the only anthropomorphized animal in his fictional universe, which was otherwise populated by humans who seemed completely unrattled by the presence of an aardvark in their midst. (Toward the end of the series, it was revealed that a handful of other supernatural aardvarks lived in Cerebus' fictional world. If you want more details, you'll have to plow through the thousands of pages of this opus yourself.)

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Strauss, Bob. "10 Facts About Aardvarks." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, thoughtco.com/10-facts-about-aardvarks-4129429. Strauss, Bob. (2020, August 27). 10 Facts About Aardvarks. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/10-facts-about-aardvarks-4129429 Strauss, Bob. "10 Facts About Aardvarks." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/10-facts-about-aardvarks-4129429 (accessed June 3, 2023).