Animal Spotlight: Aardvark


  • Kingdom: Animalia
  • Phylum: Chordata
  • Class: Mammalia
  • Order: Tubulidentata
  • Family: Orycteropodidae
  • Genus: Orycteropus
  • Species: Afer


  • Average Weight: 40 – 54 kilograms
  • Shoulder Height: 0.4 – 0.64 meters
  • Total Length: 1.4 – 2.2 meters
  • Tail Length: 0.45 – 0.6 meters
  • Approx. Lifespan: 13 years

The aardvark is the only mammalian order that contains a single species. The name Tubulidentata means “tube of teeth”, referring to the unique microstructure of the creature’s teeth. Its genus name – Orycteropus – means “digging foot”. Its range is covers much of central and southern Africa, south of the Sahara Desert, and is prey for animals like lions and hyenas.

aardvark2bdistribution2bmapA pale yellowish gray but often stained reddish-brown from digging in soil, the aardvark is a predominantly nocturnal animal that lives in solitude. It is also a burrowing critter, choosing to rest in its home during the day. Although it normally excavates its own burrows, they do frequently renovate and utilize existing burrows when changing burrows. On average, they use the burrows for a week before moving on to others. Above ground, it spends majority of its time foraging for hundreds of thousands of ants and termites per night.


Normally the mechanical and chemical defenses of ants and termites force its predators to stop feeding. This is not the case for aardvarks as the defenses are ineffective due to its tough skin. While their diet primarily consists of ants and termites, aardvarks are also known to eat the pupae of dung rolling beetles and other insects occasionally. In addition, there are also unconfirmed reports of aardvarks eating a geocarpic fruit, fruit that is formed underground, called the aardvark cucumber. Seeds have been found in its feces and the plants found growing at the entrance of burrows where droppings are often deposited. It could be that they eat the fruit for its moisture content but aardvarks typically get enough water from eating ants and termites. Another hypothesis is that instead of direct consumption of the fruit, the aardvarks ingest the seeds from feeding on seed collecting ants.

Physical Features:

15-relaxed-aardvark-600x400The aardvark is well adapted for digging. With strong legs, shovel-shaped claws, and big nails, these creatures are able to quickly dig burrows for protection or break into ant or termite homes to feed. Despite being an exceptionally fast digger, it moves fairly slowly.

The aardvark’s head is where all its iconic features are at.

Anatomical studies confirm that aardvarks have a poorly developed sense of sight. Their small eyes are unresponsive to any kind of movement and with no nocturnal adaptations. To make for this, aardvarks rely on their excellent hearing for protection and direction.

Their ears are disproportionately long and tubular, able to detect the slightest noise that might mean danger. Long ears typically are characteristics meant to keep the creature cool in the hot African climates. However, these are also nocturnal creatures who rarely come out during the day. It also seems that they are not used in finding food because aardvarks’ ears are never directed towards the ground which is where the food is found.

Instead aardvarks use their sense of sense to help locate their next meal. At the end of their long, cylindrical, pig-like noses are large nostrils that are soft to the touch. These exaggerated external features of the nose are directly related to the highly developed sense of small and its crucial role in the lives of aardvarks.

Once they located a termite or other insect mound, they use their shovel-like claws to dig through the clay and mud to break into the mound. Once inside, their long, sticky tongues reach inside to grab the insects. As long as 30 centimeters, the thin tongue is able to reach deep inside the mound to collect as many insects as possible.

Keystone Species:

Although aardvarks are solitary animals, they indirectly impact a multitude of otherAardvark Emerging from Burrow species who live in the same environment.

Abandoned aardvark burrows become homes and shelters species like warthogs, porcupines, aardwolves, pangolins, jackals, genets, black-footed cats, mongooses, and any other mammal species that are small enough to enter. Other records include hyenas and african wild dogs using the burrows to shelter their young. Several species of snakes and lizards inhabit these hollows. Birds such as the Southern ant-eating chat and the blue swallow hirundo make their nesting chambers in the roof of the burrow entrance.

Excavated termite and ant mounds also provide shelter for many snakes and lizards as well as nests for small mammals like the Southern African pygmy mouse and the lesser dwarf shrew.

Another reason why the aardvark is considered a keystone species is because of its relationship with the aardvark cucumber. The plant relies on the long-nosed mammal to spread its seed since it grows underground, making it difficult to spread its seeds and germinate. After the aardvark eats the fruit, the seeds are spread by their dung.


The aardvark is listed under IUCN as “of least concern” with few minor threats. It was previously listed incorrectly as vulnerable because of its elusive behavior was not as well-documented. Densities are low and in South Africa a population of 100 animals is thought to require an area of about 12,500 hectares. This is due to the abundance and distribution of their prey. Aardvarks are also limited to soil type as very shallow soils might restrict their range.

Aside from being preyed on by their typical predators: the leopard, lion, hyena, and snake, man is also a predator. Their flesh is eaten as bushmeat and its parts used for trinkets or charms.

Declining natural habitat from aridity and urbanisation is also a threat to the aardvark’s existence. This is due to increasing human populations. In some areas, they are considered pests by some farmers because of their digging under fences, in roads, or dam walls.

© Jacques Matthysen

Interesting Facts:

  • Aardvark, in Afrikaans, means ‘earth-pig’
  • The Egyptian god Set, god of deserts, storms, and chaos, is thought to have the head of an aardvark
  • Their burrows are typically 3-4 meters or 10-13 feet long. Breeding sites will have a number of large chambers which can be up to 13 meters or 43 feet long with several entrances
  • Can dig two feet in 15 seconds
  • Can close their nostrils when digging to keep dust from flying in
  • Because they are clean animals, a small pit is dug around the burrow for their droppings. Once full, the pits are covered over with earth.
  • Aardvarks are fast runners and are able to reach speeds of up to 40 km/hr or 25 mph
  • To elude their predators, aardvarks either dig fast or run in a zigzag fashion. If all else fails, they will strike with their claws, tail, and shoulders, sometimes even flipping onto their backs to lash with all four claws.
  • Instead of vocalizing, they indicate their presence with scent marking their home ranges.
  • No sexual dimorphism has been confirmed


For More Reading + References

IUCN: Orycteropus Afer

EDGE: Aardvark (Orycteropus afer)

New World Encylopedia: Aardvark

Animal Corner: Aardvark

Aarvark as a Keystone Species

Animal Spot: Aardvark

Aardvark Africa


Last Animal Spotlight: Pink Fairy Armadillo


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