Common Name: The Aardvark
A.K.A.: Orycteropus afer, Family Orycteropodidae
- Also referred to as the “antbear” or “earthpig”
- Common name derives from Afrikaans words meaning ‘earth’ and ‘pig’
- Habitats include savannas, grasslands, and woodlands
- Weighs 40-65kg (88-140lbs.) and can grow up to 2.2m (7’3”) long
- Can live up to 24 years in captivity
- Nocturnal, feeding only during the evening and at night
Found: Sub-Saharan Africa
It Does What?!
Like the platypus and several other creatures we’ve looked at, aardvarks are considered “living fossils,” organisms which have changed little from the way they looked millions of years ago (around 20 million, in this case).
Aardvarks don’t look much like most mammals of today, other than a passing similarity to the South American anteater, to which it isn’t closely related. In fact, aardvarks aren’t particularly closely related to anything. Not only are they the sole species in their genus, but they have their own family and order as well. This is because everything else that used to inhabit these ranks has since become extinct. At one time, there were at least 14 different species in the aardvark family, spread over parts of Africa, Europe, and Asia; but today, there’s just our friend the earthpig. Strangely, among the aardvark’s closest living relatives are manatees and elephants (all part of the motley superorder, Afrotheria), which suggests just what distant cousins they must be.
Okay, so aside from having outlived its family members, what’s so interesting about these things? Well, one look at them will tell you they must have evolved to fit some unusual lifestyle. Aardvarks are myrmecophagous, meaning they specialise in eating ants and termites, and nearly everything about that odd little body is geared to this task. First, finding their insect food means digging into large anthills and termite mounds, so aardvarks have become prodigious diggers, tunnelling at rates of up to two feet in 15 seconds with their heavily clawed feet. They use this skill in creating their underground burrows as well, excavating tunnels up to 13m (43’) long and even changing their home’s layout from time to time. Because, you know, you get tired of the same old thing…
Moving further up, the aardvark’s narrow, elongated head and long, snake-like tongue are perfect for dipping into the minute passages made by ants and termites. They even have a special sticky saliva that adheres to ants at a touch. In a single night of feeding sessions lasting from five seconds to two minutes per stop, an aardvark can attack 200 hills, consuming as many as 50,000 insects. The ants and termites try to fight back, of course, but the aardvark has thick, tough skin and can seal its nostrils shut, making bites and stings ineffective.
There’s just one feature of the aardvark that doesn’t make a lot of sense for its insect-eating lifestyle, and that’s a set of back teeth. (In fact, they’re are born with front teeth as well, but lose them at maturity.) No other myrmecophage on Earth has a functional set of teeth… you just don’t need ‘em to eat ants. So why do aardvarks have them? A little thing called the Aardvark Cucumber!
In a bonus piece of evolutionary weirdness, aardvarks supplement their diet with a single type of fruit, a cucumber which has now become entirely reliant on hungry aardvarks for its continued existence. The plant flowers above ground – as plants do – but then pushes itself into the earth as it sets fruit, resulting in a subterranean fruit. These cucumbers are dug up by aardvarks and eaten as a source of moisture, while the seeds go undigested and are conveniently deposited elsewhere with a ready source of fertiliser for germination. Without the aardvark, seed dispersal would be impossible, and new plants would be unable to obtain enough water and nutrients to survive.
So there you have the life of the lonely aardvark… enemy of the ants, saviour of the cucumber, brother to no one.
[Fun Fact: If pursued into its burrow, an aardvark will protect itself by sealing off the tunnel behind itself and digging further into the ground in the other direction.]
[Also… On their front feet, aardvarks have lost their equivalent to our thumb, retaining only four digits.]
- Endo et al. (2003) Annals of Anatomy 185: 367-372
- Lehmann et al. (2004) Journal of African Earth Sciences 40: 201-217
- Lehmann (2008) Fossil Record 11(2): 67-81
- Taylor et al. (2002) Journal of Arid Environments 50: 135-152
- Taylor & Skinner (2003) Journal of the Zoological Society of London 261: 291-297
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