The Aardvark: Nocturnal Insect-Eater

Also known as Orycteropus afer, it is the sole surviving species in its order

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

The aardvark (Orycteropus afer) is the sole surviving species in its order, the Tubulidentata. Aardvarks are medium-sized mammals 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.

The classification of the aardvark is controversial. Aardvarks were formerly classified in the same group as armadillos, sloths, and anteaters. Today, the aardvark is classified in a group of mammals called the Tubulidentata.

Living a Solitary (and Nocturnal) Life

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.

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 is sticky and can gather up ants and termites with great efficiency.

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

Aardvarks are solitary, nocturnal mammals. They 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.

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. They occasionally supplement their diet by feeding on other insects, plant material or the occasional small mammal.

Aardvarks reproduce sexually. They form pairs only during the breeding season. Females give birth to one cub after a gestation period of seven months. Young remain with their mother for about a year after which time they venture off to find their own territory.

Sub-Saharan Habitat Dwellers

Aardvarks inhabit a variety of habitats including savannas, shrublands, grasslands, and woodlands. Their range extends throughout most of sub-Saharan Africa. Within their home range, aardvarks excavate numerous burrows. Some burrows are small and temporary -- these often serve as refuges from predators. Their main burrow is used by mothers and their young and is often quite extensive.

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.