Well what do you know, we’re smack in the middle of National…hold on, checking our notes here…Aardvark Week? Someone, somewhere determined it was necessary to delegate an entire week to focus on the aardvark. Well okay! Without further ado, let’s run down some aardfacts:
- Aardvarks are not anteaters! Well, they do technically eat ants (and termites!) but they’re not closely related to the animals we commonly refer to as anteaters. Aardvarks are something of a “living fossil” as the only living species in the order Tubulidentata, while anteaters are found in the order Pilosa, alongside sloths. So, if you stumble upon an ant-eating mammal in the wild, how can you tell which you’re looking at? Well, if you’re in Central or South America, it’s an anteater. If you’re in Africa, it’s an aardvark. And if you’re at the zoo, just look for the nearest sign.
- The word “Aardvark” has two A’s in the beginning so that it shows up first in everyone’s contact list. Just kidding. Aardvark actually means “earth pig” or “ground pig” in the Afrikaans language. Like the unrelated groundhog, its name refers to its habitat of digging and burrowing in the earth, and also like the groundhog, it is not related to actual pigs, despite its name.
Close up showing distinctive nose and long ears
- The aardvark’s diet consists almost entirely of ants and termites, but it is also known to eat a particular fruit: the aardvark cucumber (or aardvark pumpkin). That’s right, this fruit is so tied to the aardvark that it’s right there in the name, even if people can’t decide whether it’s a pumpkin or a cucumber. It looks like a cantaloupe, and for the record it is technically a member of the cucumber family (fun fact: so are cantaloupes. Who knew?). This fruit relies on the aardvark to spread its seeds by eating it and then, uhm…doing its business later on, which drops the seeds off at a new location. Why do aardvarks eat this fruit? Well, insects are not known to be a good source of water, but fruit is a different story, so in environments where water can be hard to come by, the aardvark cucumber helps a lot.
- Aardvarks are not endangered, though they are rarely seen. This is because they mostly come out at night, and stay in their comfy burrows during the hot, sweltering daylight hours. Despite their shyness, they have a broad range across most of Africa, with the exception of the Sahara Desert in the north. It is worth pointing out that the aardvark population is uniquely tied to the termite population, and if that takes a hit, it could hurt the aardvark as well. After all, they can’t live on aardvark cucumbers alone!
- The aardvark has long ears, like a rabbit. Why? The better to hear you with, my dear…and by “you”, we mean “predators like an approaching lion, leopard or cheetah”. While the aardvark buries its head and snout deep in a termite buffet, it keeps its ears raised high, listening for the sound of anything that might be sneaking up to catch it unawares. Their eyes, unlike their ears, are quite tiny. However, instead of rods and cones like humans, aardvark eyes only contain rods. This is because rods are better for seeing in darker conditions, whereas cones are more responsible for perceiving color. Aardvarks don’t really need to see colors, but they do need good night vision. So, rods it is!
- The aardvark is uniquely specialized for its diet. It uses its sensitive snout to locate a termite nest or underground ant colony, then digs its way in with its sharp claws. To protect itself from insect bites, it has tough skin and the ability to close up its nostrils to prevent its prey from crawling inside, and if you just shivered at the thought of ants in your nose, you’re not alone. The aardvark’s tongue is long and sticky, and it probes around in search of insects to stick to. While it’s usually impolite to stick your tongue out, we’ll give the aardvark a pass since it’s just trying to feed itself.
African Wild Dog
- In addition to the aardvark cucumber (we’ll stop mentioning it we promise), many other organisms depend on the aardvark. Or, more specifically, they depend on its burrow. When an aardvark decides it’s time to set up shop somewhere else, it leaves its old burrow to go dig a new one. But it doesn’t go to waste – lots of animals are perfectly content to use an old aardvark burrow as their new home. African wild dogs, hyenas, warthogs, hares, mongooses (mongeese?) and many other creatures are not above taking advantage of a perfectly good lightly used abandoned aardvark burrow.
And there you have it – seven days, seven facts for Aardvark Week. Hope you learned something!