The Aardvark according to MammalMAP
The Aardvark (Orycteropus afer) can be found in sub-Saharan Africa in a broad range of habitats, including grasslands, savannah, woodlands and even semi-arid areas, anywhere water and termites are in abundance.
Aardvarks have stocky, pinkish-grey bodies with little hair, a short neck and a strongly arched back. They have powerful legs covered with dark fur. While their hind feet have five digits, their forefeet only have four, with long claw-like nails used for digging out burrows. Attached to their elongated heads are long, tubular ears, normally sticking upright. Their snouts are long and narrow with nostrils that can be sealed. They have a short and muscular, cone-shaped tail, tapering to a point.
Don’t try looking for these elusive animals during the day, as they are mostly nocturnal, only showing face during the day to soak up heat from the sun.
With a tongue up to 30 cm long, aardvarks feed almost exclusively on termites and ants, and get most of their food from underground. During the day they rest in their burrows, which they also use to escape predators. These burrowing mammals can dig 60 cm deep in 15 seconds!
Aardvarks are solitary animals, only coming together occasionally for very short periods. They give birth only once a year, and have no specific breeding season.
Aardvarks are good swimmers!
They grunt and bleat when threatened.
Aardvarks are found throughout sub-Saharan Africa, except for the West and Central rain forest regions.
Biogeographic Regions: ethiopian (Native )
Aardvarks are the size of small pigs, but have very thick skin and do not possess a fat layer. They are notable for their long nose, which is wider at the distal end, their squared-off head, and a tail that tapers off toward the tip. The body is massive and they have very muscular limbs ending in thick-nailed digits. The hair is short on the head, neck, and tail, but longer and darker on the rest of the body, especially the limbs. Hair is often worn off in adults, but apparent on the young. The sides of the face and tail are pale colored, lighter in females and darker in males. During the wet season, aardvarks have fat deposits that are likely fueled by termite consumption.
Aardvarks have 4 toes on the forefeet and 5 toes on the hind feet, each ending in a spade-like claw that helps them to dig with great speed and force. Digging is used both to acquire food and as a means of escape. The stance is digitigrade.
Aardvarks have peg-like molars and premolars, but no incisors or canines; the dental formula is 0/0 0/0 2/2 3/3. Their teeth lack enamel and are made up of densely packed tubules, composed of a modified form of dentine. The tubules are contained in a sleeve of dental cement. Embryos and infants have a full set of vestigial milk teeth, including canines.
Range mass: 40 to 82 kg.
Range length: 100 to 158 cm.
Other Physical Features: endothermic ; homoiothermic; bilateral symmetry
Sexual Dimorphism: male larger; sexes colored or patterned differently
Average basal metabolic rate: 34.275 W.
Aardvarks occupy grassland and savanna habitats in sub-Saharan Africa, preferring areas that have a large abundance of ants and termites year round. The location of their burrow may differ from where they forage, in which case they walk between the two sites at night. They are rarely found in areas that have hard, compact soil, rocky areas, or areas that frequently flood. They often live in temporary holes that are a few meters in length, but can also live in complex and intricate burrows, which can have eight or more entrances and extend as much as 6 meters underground. Burrow entrances are often plugged with a vent left at the top.
Habitat Regions: temperate ; tropical ; terrestrial
Terrestrial Biomes: savanna or grassland
Habitat and Ecology
Aardvarks eat at night and are myrmecophagous, i.e. they specialize on ants and termites, with the majority of their diet being ants. They dig rapidly into the sides or center of ant and termite nests or mounds, while feeding at the same time. The ants and termites are swept into their small mouth with their long, sticky tongue. Aardvarks swallow without chewing their food, or after chewing their food very little. The insects are digested in the pyloric region of the muscular, gizzard-like stomach. Some of the predator defenses that ants and termites use against myrmecophagous animals, such as pangolins, anteaters, and echidnas, include biting, stinging, chemical defenses, and building hard mounds. These defenses do not seem to affect aardvarks. Colonies of ants and termites are rarely destroyed after an aardvark feeds and can be built back up and reestablished.
Animal Foods: insects
Primary Diet: carnivore (Insectivore )
Aardvarks are important in their ecosystem because the holes they dig are used by a variety of other animals for shelter. These include hyenas, warthogs, squirrels, hedgehogs, mongooses, and bats, as well as birds and reptiles.
Ecosystem Impact: creates habitat; soil aeration
- hyenas (Hyaenidae)
- warthogs (Phacochoerus)
- squirrels (Sciuridae)
- hedgehogs (Erinaceidae)
- mongooses (Herpestidae)
- bats (Chiroptera)
If confronted by a predator, an aardvark will attempt to dig a hole in which to hide, taking about 10 minutes to completely cover itself up. If it cannot dig a hole, it will stand upright on its hind legs and tail, or lay on its back, and defend itself with its large front claws. Humans are the primary predator of aardvarks, but lions, hyenas, and leopards are also known to kill them.
- humans (Homo sapiens)
- lions (Panthera leo)
- hyenas (Hyaenidae)
- leopards (Panthera pardus)
Life History and Behavior
The only known sounds made by aardvarks are grunts and, in cases of extreme fear, bleats. Both sexes have glands on their elbows and hips, which may aid in mating or spacing of individuals. However, scent marking has not been observed.
Aardvarks have poor vision because their retinas contain only rods, which allow them to see at night, but leave them colorblind. They have a very acute sense of hearing and long ears that can be moved independently, as well as folded back and closed while tunneling. Aardvarks have an exceptional sense of smell due to structures in the nose that increase turbinal surface area, improving the detection of olfactory signals. The olfactory region of the brain is highly developed in aardvarks, giving the middle profile of the skull a swollen appearance.
Communication Channels: acoustic ; chemical
Other Communication Modes: pheromones
Perception Channels: visual ; tactile ; acoustic ; chemical
Aardvarks live for up to 18 years in the wild. In captivity, aardvarks are expected to live for about 23 years.
Status: wild: 18 years.
Status: captivity: 23 years.
Status: captivity: 24.0 years.
Status: captivity: 10.0 years.
Status: captivity: 23.0 years.
Status: wild: 23.0 years.
Status: captivity: 18.0 years.
Lifespan, longevity, and ageing
Aardvarks are solitary and territorial, coming together only to breed. They are believed to be polygynous.
Mating System: polygynous
Male aardvarks have genitals that secrete a powerful musk and both males and females have glands on their elbows and hips. These glands might help with individual spacing and/or be involved in mating, but obvious scent marking has not been reported. Northern African aardvarks give birth between October and November, while aardvarks in South Africa give birth between May and July.
Usually one young is born after a gestation period of about 7 months. Offspring are born naked and with eyes open. The young begin to follow their mother at 2 weeks. They nurse until 3 months, at which time they begin to eat insects. At about 6 months, they become independent of the mother, and at about 2 years, they become sexually active. Aardvarks live to be about 18 years of age.
Breeding interval: Aardvarks breed once yearly
Breeding season: It is believed that aardvarks breed earlier in the year the closer they are to they equator.
Range number of offspring: 1 to 2.
Average number of offspring: 1.
Average gestation period: 7 months.
Average weaning age: 3 months.
Average time to independence: 6 months.
Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female): 2 years.
Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male): 2 years.
Key Reproductive Features: iteroparous ; seasonal breeding ; gonochoric/gonochoristic/dioecious (sexes separate); sexual ; viviparous
Average birth mass: 1800 g.
Average gestation period: 225 days.
Average number of offspring: 1.
Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
Sex: male: 730 days.
Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
Sex: female: 730 days.
Female aardvarks give birth in their burrow and the young remain underground for several weeks, while maturing. Offspring are taken care of by the mother until they are independent at about 6 months, after which they dig their own burrows.
Parental Investment: altricial ; female parental care ; pre-fertilization (Provisioning, Protecting: Female); pre-hatching/birth (Provisioning: Female, Protecting: Female); pre-weaning/fledging (Provisioning: Female, Protecting: Female); pre-independence (Protecting: Female)
Evolution and Systematics
Echigo moles and other digging animals break the soil surface and move as much earth as possible per stroke with short, powerful limbs and sharp claws.
"Quite different in character are the feet of the diggers, animals that habitually burrow into the earth. The friction drag of moving through the ground is potentially enormous, so the size of the limbs and the area through which they move must be kept to an absolute minimum; but at the same time, great strength is needed. The limbs of animals that lead an almost completely subterranean life, like the mole, are short and thick, and their feet are broad and powerful. Each short stroke of a foot must move as much earth as possible, and the mole's feet are spade-like with widely spaced digits. In addition, the claws of digging animals are usually large, sharp and strong, to do the work of a pickaxe in breaking the soil surface. The aardvark of South Africa (its Afrikaans name, 'earth-pig', refers to its rather pig-like head) is a curious animal that digs for food in termite's nests. Its feet are short and massive with large, almost hoof-like claws on each toe. It is said that one aardvark can dig a hole faster than six men with shovels. Not only does it dig into termite nests to eat the insects, the aardvark digs burrows 4m or more in length in which to hide during the day.
The armadillos of Central and South America are also powerful diggers, able to conceal themselves at amazing speed; they too have short, strong legs with daunting claws. The feet of the giant anteater, another excavator of ant and termite nests, are not massive as those of the aardvark. They are long and curved -- so much so that the anteater is forced to walk on the sides of its feet with an ungainly bow-legged gait. The anteater is a scratch-digger, not a maker of burrows, so its claws do not need to be as large." (Foy and Oxford Scientific Films 1982:179-180)
Learn more about this functional adaptation.
Molecular Biology and Genetics
Barcode data: Orycteropus afer
Below is a sequence of the barcode region Cytochrome oxidase subunit 1 (COI or COX1) from a member of the species.
See the BOLD taxonomy browser for more complete information about this specimen and other sequences.
-- end --
Download FASTA File
Statistics of barcoding coverage: Orycteropus afer
Public Records: 2
Specimens with Barcodes: 3
Species With Barcodes: 1
Aardvarks are widespread, however, they have been exterminated in many agricultural areas. They are vulnerable in all settled areas and endangered or extinct in areas with a high concentration of people. They are often hunted by farmers and ranchers who find their hole digging inconvenient or dangerous. Cultivation and pesticide use has resulted in the elimination of their food source in some areas.
US Federal List: no special status
CITES: no special status
State of Michigan List: no special status
IUCN Red List of Threatened Species: least concern
IUCN Red List Assessment
Red List Category
Red List Criteria
- 2006Least Concern(IUCN 2006)
- 2006Least Concern
- 2003Least Concern(IUCN 2003)
- 2003Least Concern
- 1996Lower Risk/least concern(Baillie and Groombridge 1996)
Relevance to Humans and Ecosystems
Aardvark burrows can present a hazard for vehicles.
Sometimes humans hunt aardvarks for their meat and hide, although products made out of aardvarks are subject to trade restrictions. Aardvarks may help control termite and ant populations, which are pests to humans.
Positive Impacts: food ; body parts are source of valuable material; controls pest population
|This article includes a list of references, but its sources remain unclear because it has insufficient inline citations.|
Please help to improve this article by introducing more precise citations where appropriate. (January 2010)
The Aardvark (Orycteropus afer) (afer: from Africa) is a medium-sized, burrowing, nocturnal mammal native to Africa. It is the only living species of the order Tubulidentata, although other prehistoric species and genera of Tubulidentata are known.
It is sometimes called "antbear", "anteater", or the "Cape anteater" after the Cape of Good Hope. The name comes from the Afrikaans/Dutch for "earth pig" or "ground pig" (aarde earth/ground, varken pig), because of its burrowing habits (similar origin to the name groundhog). The aardvark is not related to the pig; rather, it is the sole recent representative of the obscure mammalian order Tubulidentata, in which it is usually considered to form one variable species of the genus Orycteropus, the sole surviving genus in the family Orycteropodidae. The aardvark is not closely related to the South American anteater, despite sharing some characteristics and a superficial resemblance. The closest living relatives of the aardvark are the elephant shrews, along with the sirenians, hyraxes, tenrecs, and elephants. Together with their extinct relatives, these animals form the superorder Afrotheria.
One of the most distinctive characteristics of the Tubulidentata is their teeth. Instead of having a pulp cavity, each tooth has a cluster of thin, upright, parallel tubes of vasodentin (a modified form of dentine), with individual pulp canals, held together by cementum. The teeth have no enamel coating and are worn away and regrow continuously. The aardvark is born with conventional incisors and canines at the front of the jaw, which fall out and are not replaced. Adult aardvarks only have cheek teeth at the back of the jaw, and have a dental formula of:
The aardvark is vaguely pig-like in appearance. Its body is stout with an arched back and is sparsely covered with coarse hairs. The limbs are of moderate length. The front feet have lost the pollex (or 'thumb') — resulting in four toes — but the rear feet have all five toes. Each toe bears a large, robust nail which is somewhat flattened and shovel-like, and appears to be intermediate between a claw and a hoof. The ears are disproportionately long, and the tail is very thick at the base and gradually tapers. The greatly elongated head is set on a short, thick neck, and the end of the snout bears a disc, which houses the nostrils. The mouth is small and tubular, typical of species that feed on termites. The aardvark has a long, thin, snakelike, protruding tongue and elaborate structures supporting a keen sense of smell.
An aardvark's weight is typically between 40 and 65 kg. An aardvark's length is usually between 1 and 1.3 metres, and can reach lengths of 2.2 metres when its tail (which can be up to 70 centimetres) is taken into account. The aardvark is pale yellowish gray in color and often stained reddish-brown by soil. The aardvark's coat is thin and the animal's primary protection is its tough skin. The aardvark has been known to sleep in a recently excavated ant nest, which also serves as protection from its predators.
The aardvark is nocturnal and is a solitary creature that feeds almost exclusively on ants and termites (formicivore); the only fruit eaten by aardvarks is the aardvark cucumber. An aardvark emerges from its burrow in the late afternoon or shortly after sunset, and forages over a considerable home range encompassing 10 to 30 kilometers, swinging its long nose from side to side to pick up the scent of food. When a concentration of ants or termites is detected, the aardvark digs into it with its powerful front legs, keeping its long ears upright to listen for predators, and takes up an astonishing number of insects with its long, sticky tongue—as many as 50,000 in one night have been recorded. It can dig 2 feet in 15 seconds , but otherwise moves fairly slowly. Its claws enable it to dig through the extremely hard crust of a termite or ant mound quickly, avoiding the dust by sealing the nostrils. When successful, the aardvark's long (up to 30 centimeters) tongue licks up the insects; the termites' biting, or the ants' stinging attacks are rendered futile by the tough skin. Its keen hearing warns it of predators: lions, leopards, hyenas, and pythons.
Aside from digging out ants and termites, the aardvark also excavates burrows in which to live: temporary sites are scattered around the home range as refuges, and a main burrow is used for breeding. Main burrows can be deep and extensive, have several entrances and can be as long as 13 meters. The aardvark changes the layout of its home burrow regularly, and from time to time moves on and makes a new one; the old burrows are then inhabited by smaller animals like the African Wild Dog. Only mothers and young share burrows. If attacked in the tunnel, it will seal the tunnel off behind itself or turn around and attack with its claws.
Aardvarks only pair during the breeding season; after a gestation period of 7 months, one cub weighing around 2 kg is born, and is able to leave the burrow to accompany its mother after only two weeks, and is eating termites at 14 weeks and is weaned by 16 weeks. At six months of age it is able to dig its own burrows, but it will often remain with the mother until the next mating season, and is sexually capable by the season after that.
The aardvark's main predators are lions, leopards, hunting dogs and pythons. Some African tribes also hunt aardvarks for its flesh. Aardvarks can dig fast or run in zigzag fashion to elude enemies, but if all else fails, they will strike with their claws, tail and shoulders, sometimes flipping onto their backs to lash with all fours. Their thick skin also protects them to some extent.
Mythology and popular culture
In African folklore the aardvark is much admired because of its diligent quest for food and its fearless response to soldier ants. Hausa magicians make a charm from the heart, skin, forehead, and nails of the aardvark, which they then proceed to pound together with the root of a certain tree. Wrapped in a piece of skin and worn on the chest the charm is said to give the owner the ability to pass through walls or roofs at night. The charm is said to be used by burglars and those seeking to visit young girls without their parents' permission.
One of the main characters of the 1969-1971 animated cartoon The Ant and the Aardvark is a blue aardvark voiced by John Byner, doing an impersonation of Jackie Mason. It depicts the Aardvark attempting, and failing, to catch and eat his antagonist, the Ant, also voiced by Byner impersonating Dean Martin.
The Canadian cartoon series The Raccoons featured an antagonist named Cyril Sneer; he and his son Cedric were both portrayed as being aardvarks.
Notes and references
- ^ Lindsey, P., Cilliers, S., Griffin, M., Taylor, A., Lehmann, T. & Rathbun, G. (2008). Orycteropus afer. In: IUCN 2008. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Downloaded on 29 December 2008.
- ^ a b c d e f g h "Aardvark". Encyclopaedia Britannica.
- ^ Schlitter, Duane A. (16 November 2005). "Order Tubulidentata (p. 86)". In Wilson, Don E., and Reeder, DeeAnn M., eds. Mammal Species of the World: A Taxonomic and Geographic Reference (3rd ed.). Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2 vols. (2142 pp.). ISBN 978-0-8018-8221-0. OCLC 62265494. http://www.bucknell.edu/msw3/browse.asp?id=11300004.
- ^ Obsolete Afrikaans, actually. The modern Afrikaans name is erdvark. aardvark (2010). In Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. Retrieved February 2, 2010, from Merriam-webster.com
- ^ a b "Aardvark". African Wildlife Foundation. http://www.awf.org/content/wildlife/detail/aardvark. Retrieved 2008-01-10.
- ^ "Great Uncle Aardvark?". BBC NEWS online — Science/Nature. 2003-01-20. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/2676377.stm. Retrieved 2008-01-10.
- ^ a b c van Aarde, Rudi J. (1984). Macdonald, D.. ed. The Encyclopedia of Mammals. New York: Facts on File. pp. 466–467. ISBN 0-87196-871-1.
- ^ "Aardvarks at the Bronx Zoo" (flash video). http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Z5OoBqqYsk&t=0m46s. Retrieved January 31, 2011.
- ^ "Cute as a Button but a Pain in my Butt: The Aardvark". http://www.themagicalbuffet.com/Issues/Vol02_Iss07/Article_049.html. Retrieved 2008-01-10.
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- ^ WKYC.com