What are Aardvarks?

S. Mithra

Aardvarks, the peculiar mammal from Africa, use chiseling claws and a sticky tongue to prey on termites. They occupy a unique order and species because they have strange teeth made of dentine, instead of enamel. As a prehistoric remnant, aardvarks are often incorrectly mistaken as anteaters.

Leopards are one of the many African feline species that prey on aardvarks.
Leopards are one of the many African feline species that prey on aardvarks.

You'd recognize aardvarks by their tough, grayish-brown skin with bristly hair and long, skinny snout. They also have rabbit-like rear legs used to hop more than walk, and agile front legs outfitted with specialized claws that dig burrows and disturb termite mounds. Their long, rodent-like tail that stretches to one third of their total length, helps clear dirt and balance the animal while hopping, like a kangaroo. Donkey ears, upright and large, allow them to hear the scratching of insect feet. With this mishmash of different animal's features, it's no wonder that the Boers of South Africa named the aardvark "earth pig" in Afrikaans.

Aardvarks are found across most of central and southern Africa.
Aardvarks are found across most of central and southern Africa.

Aardvarks roam over a variety of terrain, wherever the ground is soft enough to dig and termites plentiful enough to find. They are found across most of central and southern Africa in the plains, bush, woodlands, scrub, and savanna. While mostly solitary, they do meet during mating season. Mothers keep their offspring close for up to two years as they occupy adjacent burrows. These burrows are cozy and large, including several entrances and different rooms.

Their diet is comprised mostly of termites, supplemented by ants and other insects. A long, flexible tongue has evolved sticky saliva to catch many insects at once as it dives into a termite mound or rotting log. Nocturnal ardvarks generally hunt at night due to their colorblindness. Even still, they are threatened by large cats like leopards and lions, as well as hyenas, snakes, and, of course, humans. They measure around 6.5 ft (2 m) and weigh 80-140 lbs (36-64 kg).

Perhaps the strangest characteristic of aardvarks is their utterly unique teeth structure. They use molars to grind up the hard exoskeleton of insects for easier digestion. The teeth are made of hexagonal tubes of a hard material called dentine. All other animals with this kind of teeth, called primitive ungulates, became extinct 35 million years ago. This qualifies aardvarks as their own order, Tubulidentata, as well as a unique species, Orycteropus afer. Elephants are more closely related to aardvarks than are anteaters.

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