Aardvark Physical Appearance
Aardvarks are about 2 metres long from the end of the snout to the tip of the tail, and they stand at about half a metre (shoulder to ground). The thick tail itself is about 2/3 of a metre long, and has the function of both stabilizing as it bounces along, as well as helping push dirt away from the body while digging. Its face is bedecked with two long ears, usually standing straight up. Also, a cylindrical snout protrudes from the front of its face, vaguely reminiscent of an anteater. The eyes are situated on the sides of its head, and its mouth and nose at the end of the snout. Its body is covered not with fur but sparse, tough bristles, and its skin is colored a greyish brown or a brownish grey. A rather bulky (bulky, not fat 😛 ) torso is supported by four muscular legs, each ending in a series of claws; four in the front, five in the back. These, in combination, allow it to rip through the ground and termite nests alike with ease.
As an animal, the aardvark is an oddity (though a very cool) oddity. Afrikaan for ‘earth pig’, the aardvark has features that seem distinctive to the anteater (the long snout and claws), the rabbit (hind legs), and the donkey (ears). Even with all this apparent hybridization, the aardvark is a unique organism as evidenced by its enamelless teeth, rotund torso, and furlessness, a trait rare among African mammals (except for, say, the elephant). In summation: the aardvark exudes coolness.
The aardvark is only present in Africa, but is present almost everywhere on this continent. From the south edge of the Sahara desert all the way to Cape Horn on the south tip of South Africa, aardvarks frequent the area. Generally, they can live in almost any type of terrain – grasslands, open woodlands, savannah – except for dense forests and desert. In dense forests, the roots obstruct digging to a very severe degree, rendering the aardvark both homeless and exposed to predators. As for deserts, the food supply is adequate, and digging is again difficult, though in a different way (how would you like it if your house collapsed in on you every few seconds?). Also, human-infeste — er, inhabited — areas tend to be avoided by aardvarks, if only for survival’s sake.
The aardvark digs burrows with several tunnels, always lasting a long time. They may use a burrow for a month or two before they wander off to other hunting grounds, and other animals such as warthogs and snakes will use these leftover burrows as their own homes. They are usually nocturnal, and as they move, they jump like rabbits, hopping forward at rather quick speeds. Combined with their myopia (nearsightedness), this leads to aardvarks often hitting trees (not fatally, mind you). In one night, an aardvark may travel up to 16 km, including feeding: not too shabby for such a small package.
The aardvark’s primary prey is the termite (Isoptera). NOTE THAT TERMITES != ANTS!!! AARDVARKS DO NOT EAT ANTS! *ahem* And even if they do, they don’t eat very many – termites and soft-bodied, and soft-shelled, as well as populous and dense in Africa, ideal for aardvark consumption. Ants have exoskeletons which the digestive tract of the aardvark is unequipped to deal with. Other food sources include the “fat mouse”, other insects, and a fruit dubbed the ‘aardvark pumpkin’, which is small, red, and fleshy.
The standard night of hunting begins with aardvark bounding about, locking on to local termite nests via its particularly good sense of smell. Once there, it uses its foreclaws, digging and tearing its way through the nest walls, generally causing havoc and chaos to ensue within the peaceful little termite colony. As the termites begin to swarm all over in panic, the aardvark tongue just slithers around, capturing termites with its rather sticky saliva and proceeds to consume them. After feeding, the aardvark will continue to wander, bouncing in its own particular gait, something of a cross between leaping and running (it often hits trees in the process). Sometimes, an aardvark will stumble upon a marching termite column. Cha-ching! With little effort, the aardvark can feed on oh… about ten grand or so little termites innocently going about their way.
There are two types of defence essential to the survival of the aardvark: defence from the attacks of one’s prey, and defence from one’s predators. While the termites are not nearly as well developed socially as the ants, they still have a caste system of society, and naturally, have soldier termites. These viciously defend the survival of their colony through either large jaws for biting or spitting venom. However, these are both ineffective against the aardvark. The bites are unable to pentrate through the shield of bristles and thick skin that covers the aardvark. Both eyelids and nostril lids close when attacking, and white, curved bristles from the aardvark keep the termite soldiers at an ineffective distance.
The aardvark, while being a very well adapted hunter, still remains in the middle of the food chain. Among those who would seek to eat it include lions, ratels, and pythons. In many cases, the aardvark capitalizes on its greatest assets – speed and digging – and attempts to evade by digging its way into a tunnel and successfully out of reach. If that fails, and the assailant is too close, the aardvark turns on to its back and gives a fantastic fight. Kicking kamikaze-like with all four feet (claws included) into the attacker’s face, aardvarks have been known to dissuade the predator into finding an easier meal, or even if they die, they exact a large price. Lion’s skulls have been found, strafed with aardvark claw marks.
Aardvark Social Life
Aardvarks aren’t terribly social creatures. They never congregate in groups, for a few reasons: a) there’s not a whole bunch of them, so their density is fairly low and so their paths seldom cross, b) if they did clump together, they’d drain the food supply in a region really quickly, c) they don’t like the look of each other’s faces. 😉 Their contact with other members of their race are at a minimum, while just enough to propagate the species: mating and parenting. Mating season occurs about once a year, and the gestation period is generally 7 months. After the offspring is born, it will live ‘indoors’ (in burrows) for 2 weeks, then gradually follow its mother on hunting trips, migrating from burrow to burrow. At 6 months, it is capable of digging on its own. At 8 to 12 months, depending on how smart the child is, it takes up the solitary life of the aardvark until it reaches sexual maturity, when it, too, repeats the cycle of life…
One interesting point that should be noted is that aardvarks still find some way to mate even though their numbers are scattered across a very large area, where pheromones are likely too weak to be useful, and there is no ‘special mating place’ where all the aardvarks go to find a partner.
The aardvark’s scientific name is Orycteropus afer, of the family Orycteropodidae, order Tubilidentata, class Mammalia, phylum Chordata, and kingdom Animalia. It was originally placed in the same order as the sloths and anteaters in Edentata, but as more was discovered about the aardvark, it was decidedly physiologically different from these… impostors, and a new order was accordingly bestowed upon it (Yay!). Edentata means ‘lack of teeth’ while Tubilidentata means ‘tube-toothed’. The aardvark actually does have teeth, 2 premolars and 3 molars in each quadrant of the mouth, adding up to 20 in total. Each tooth is hexagonally shaped, made primarily out of dentine, and devoid of enamel. Roughly shaped like a tube (hence Tubilidentata), their function is for helping grind down the corpses of termites before they enter the digestive tract, much as our own teeth are. Actually, there are other recorded species of mammals with these same enamelless teeth, but these species are all extinct. The only one left is the common day aardvark, which has been proposed to be two subspecies, the northern and cape aardvark. However, it is the opinion of this particular writer than these are so genetically similar that they are but one species.