Talk about distinctive! The aardvark might just be the most unusual-looking animal in the bush. But its looks aren’t the only interesting thing about it. By Gaynor Siljeur

Despite being found throughout Southern Africa, the aardvark is rarely spotted as it mostly digs around for termites and ants at night. A sighting of this elusive creature is one you’ll never forget.

Just in case you’re lucky enough to spot one, here are some interesting facts to get you better acquainted:

Unique features

There is no other animal in the wild you can confuse with an aardvark. The ears of a rabbit, the snout of a pig, the body of a bear, the tail of a kangaroo… Its unique features make the aardvark truly one of a kind.

Weighing up to 70kg, its large body is covered by a coat of white or buff hair so sparse you can see the pink or yellow-grey skin showing through. Due to spending most of its time digging around in the dirt, the aardvark takes on the colour of the ground where it lives.

The snout has slit-shaped nostrils perfect for closing when the aardvark goes digging around underground for shelter and food. The animal uses its long tongue (up to 30cm!) to extend into holes in search of insects.

Aardvarks (Orycteropus afer) Photographed in the Karoo South Africa. Picture by Etienne Oosthuizen

Fast diggers

The aardvark’s size and hunched back may suggest that they don’t move that quickly, but don’t let that fool you. These animals are master excavators and can dig a 1m tunnel in an unbelievable five minutes.

The aardvark digs two types of burrows: shallow burrows for temporary shelter and larger burrows used for tunnel systems. The shallower tunnels are dug only a few metres below the ground with few entrances used for a couple of days at a time and for possible return later. The larger tunnel systems, which they use regularly, can extend up to 6m. Females also use these larger tunnel spaces to give birth in. Once inside these tunnels, the aardvark usually closes the entrance with loose soil, leaving a small gap for air at the top.

Although aardvarks are keystone animals in the wild, providing an astonishing 18+ mammal species with shelter in the form of their burrows, they can be unpopular with farmers. These diggers’ excavation holes can impact dam walls and roads.

Picture by Ayesha Cantor

Seasonal diet preferences

These peculiar-looking creatures have developed quite the seasonal appetite. Although their staple food consist of ants and termites, the amount they eat of each insect can vary during the different seasons. Termites dominate their diet during the rainy months while ants top the menu during the drier months.

Picture by Ayesha Cantor

Working night shift

Aardvarks are nocturnal animals that are active during the night and rest during the day. They forage for 5-7 hours during winter and up to 9 hours during summer, making good use of their snouts to detect the underground termite and ant nests and scrape them open with their front claws. Their long sticky tongue can be protruded for about 20-30cm into these nests and withdrawn with the termites and ants sticking to it. Yum!

Fast fact: Did you know mice skeletons have been recorded in aardvark droppings? Scientists think the mice might have hidden in a termite mound and been scooped up with mouthfuls of earth while the aardvark was digging.

Picture by Barry Christensen

A little trampling goes a long way

Aardvarks prefer to make open woodlands, sparse scrub and grasslands their home. They are also one of the few animals that do not mind being in the company of a large herd of livestock. With the many hooves trampling the ground, termites are more exposed – making it easier for the aardvark to locate and eat them.

Also read: Get to know the long-legged serval

SOURCES:
SMITHERS’ MAMMALS OF SOUTHERN AFRICA: A FIELD GUIDE.2012. STRUIK NATURE.
STUARTS’ FIELD GUIDE TO MAMMALS OF SOUTHERN AFRICA INCLUDING ANGOLA, ZAMBIA & MALAWI. 2015. STRUIK NATURE.
BEAT ABOUT THE BUSH: MAMMALS AND BIRDS. 2013. JACANDA MEDIA.