Aardvark Fast Facts

Scientific Name: Orycteropus afer

aardvark (orycteropus afer) in Kenya, Masai Mara Game Reserve
DENIS-HUOT / hemis.fr / Getty Images

Aardvarks (Orycteropus afer) are known by several common names including antbears and anteaters. The name aardvark is Afrikaans (a daughter language of Dutch) for earth pig. Despite these common names, aardvarks are not closely related to bears, pigs, or anteaters. Instead, they occupy their own distinct order: Tubulidentata.

Fast Facts: Aardvark

  • Scientific Name: Orycteropus afer
  • Common Name(s): Aardvark, antbear, anteater, Cape anteaters, earth pig
  • Basic Animal Group: Mammal
  • Size: Up to 6.5 feet long, 2 feet at shoulder height
  • Weight: 110–175 pounds
  • Lifespan: 10 years
  • Diet: Carnivore
  • Habitat: Sub-saharan Africa
  • Population: Not quantified
  • Conservation Status: Least Concern
Aardvarks are a rare burrowing mammal found in southern Africa and are often high on people's must-see lists on safari.
 

Description

Aardvarks are medium-sized mammals (weighing 110–175 pounds and up to 6.5 feet long) with a bulky body, arched back, medium-length legs, long ears (they resemble those of a donkey), a long snout, and a thick tail. They have a sparse coat of coarse grayish brown fur covering their body. Aardvarks have four toes on their front feet and five toes on their rear feet. Each toe has a flat, sturdy nail that they use for digging burrows and tearing into insect nests in search of food.

Aardvarks have very thick skin which provides them protection from insect bites and even the bites of predators. Their teeth lack enamel and, as a result, wear down and must regrow continuously—the teeth are tubular and hexagonal in cross-section. Aardvarks have small eyes and their retina only contains rods (this means they are color-blind). Like many nocturnal animals, aardvarks have a keen sense of smell and very good hearing. Their front claws are especially robust, enabling them to dig burrows and break open termite nests with ease. Their long, serpentine tongue (10–12 inches) is sticky and can gather up ants and termites with great efficiency.

The classification of the aardvark was controversial at one time. Aardvarks were formerly classified in the same group as armadillos, sloths, and anteaters. Today, genetic studies have shown that the aardvark is classified in the order called the Tubulidentata (tube-toothed), and the family Orycteropodidae: they are the only animal in either order or family.

Aardvark in the bush, Eastern Cape, South Africa
 

Habitat and Range

Aardvarks inhabit a variety of habitats including savannas, shrublands, grasslands, and woodlands. Although they once lived in Europe and Asia, today their range extends throughout most of sub-Saharan Africa, every ecosystem except marshes, deserts, and very rock terrains.

Diet and Behavior

Aardvarks forage at night, covering extensive distances (as much as 6 miles per night) in search of food. To find food, they swing their noses from side to side over the ground, trying to detect their prey by scent. They feed almost exclusively on termites and ants and can consume up to 50,000 insects in a single night. They occasionally supplement their diet by feeding on other insects, plant material or the occasional small mammal.

Solitary, nocturnal mammals, aardvarks spend the daylight hours safely tucked away inside their borrows and emerge to feed during the late afternoon or early evening. Aardvarks are extraordinarily fast diggers and can excavate a hole 2 feet deep in less than 30 seconds. The main predators of aardvarks include lions, leopards, and pythons.

Aardvark (Orycteropus afer) leaving den, zoo, Africa
Konrad Wothe/Getty Images

Aardvarks dig three types of burrows in their ranges: relatively shallow foraging burrows, larger temporary shelters to hide from predators and more complex burrows for permanent residence. They share their permanent residences with other creatures but not other aardvarks. Investigation of the residential burrows has shown that compared to the surrounding soil, soil inside the burrow is cooler (between 4 and 18 degrees F cooler depending on the time of day), and moister. The differences remained the same no matter how old the burrow was, leading researchers to name the aardvark an "ecological engineer."

Reproduction and Offspring

Aardvarks reproduce sexually and form pairs only for a short time during the breeding season. Females give birth to one or rarely two cubs after a gestation period of eight months. The young are born with their eyes open and become independent of their mothers at six months after which time they venture off to find their own territory. Aardvarks become sexually mature at two years of age and have lifespans in the wild of about 10 years.

Evolutionary History

Aardvarks are considered to be living fossils due to their ancient, highly conserved genetic make-up. Scientists believe that today's aardvarks represent one of the most ancient lineages among the placental mammals (Eutheria). Aardvarks are considered to be a primitive form of hoofed mammal, not because of any obvious similarities but instead due to subtle characteristics of their brain, teeth, and musculature.

The closest living relatives to the aardvarks include elephants, hyraxes, dugongs, manatees, elephant shrews, golden moles, and tenrecs. Together, these mammals form a group known as the Afrotheria.

Threats

Aardvarks once existed in Europe and Asia but are now only found in sub-Saharan Africa, but they are classified as "Least Concern" by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and not listed as threatened at all by the ECOS Environmental Conservation Online System.

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