Aardvark, Orycteropus afer, are sparsely scattered throughout the savannah of the southern parts of Africa. “Orycteropus” means “burrowing foot” and “afer” is an adjective form of Africa. Rarely seen, these solitary nocturnal creatures roam the savannah plains night after night in search of ants or a tasty termite mound to help satisfy their huge appetites. Few people understand the ecological importance of the aardvark and as their natural habitat continues to decline, a simple, yet integrated system may be lost.
When I first encountered this unique animal in the veld, I thought it to be somewhat like a giant rat. The tubular ears resemble those of a donkey, the long snout that of a pig, the tail of a rat, and the claws similar to a bear's. The aardvark's powerful limbs and claws make this mammal an exceptional digger. I have seen aardvark that started digging in sandy loam soil disappear beneath the surface within three minutes. It is these digging abilities that make the aardvark unpopular amongst farmers. The huge holes and burrows dug by aardvark can devastate dam walls and seriously damage motor vehicles and tractors when unsuspectedly driving into them in the veld. Burrow systems of aardvark can be extensive reaching depths of up to three or more meters deep. The holes are just big enough for the aardvark to fit and curves along for up to ten meters. Burrow systems may branch out into several tunnels with a chamber, which is slightly larger, at the end of the tunnel. This is where the aardvark safely sleeps during daytime. Aardvark burrows have a huge heap of excavated soil at the entrance. As the aardvark enters the burrow they will often clean out old soil and scoop their way through the loose soil towards their sleeping chamber. The tunnels are partially closed with the loose soil when going to bed. This prevents other creatures entering the burrow and provides extra warmth and safety. Only a shallow opening is left at the top of the tunnel serving as an air vent. Although uncommon, burrows may have more than one entrance. In the Freestate province aardvark may become active before sunset during the colder winter months. This is probably due to decrease in ant activity as the night gets colder. During very cold nights when temperatures drop to below freezing point aardvark may seeks the warmth of the burrow before ten o'clock at night. In summer they rise later and may spend the whole night foraging before going to bed at sunrise. On average aardvark emerge from their burrows during early evening. Before emerging from the burrow they sniff the air to make sure all is secure. On existing small flies sitting at the entrance of the burrow jump onto the back of the aardvark and get piggybacked around for the evening. These commentualistic flies utilize the moisture and warmth of the aardvark. During the aardvark's first defecation and urination of the evening, within twenty minutes of exiting his burrow, most of these flies fly down to the defecation to quench their thirst and have their dinner. Aardvarks scrape a shallow hole with their back legs to defecate and urinate in. They cover the evidence with soil using their front legs and often scent-marks the small heap of soil with a gland situated in the groin area when walking off. The faeces are small ovoid pellets consisting mostly of soil with ant and termite heads. The faecal pellets measure approximately 1.8 x 3 centimeters.
Scent marking occurs more during the mating season where the aardvark mark small freshly dug up soil heaps, small termite mounds, rocks and occasionally even ostrich eggs. For most of the night they walk around their territory feeding on ants. Sniffing the ground in search of their prey they prod along with ears erect to listen for danger. When they detect other animals in the vicinity they stand still with ears erect and sniff the air. If it is detected that no danger is present, they merrily continue going about their business. They can easily detect other animals hundreds of meters away and during summer months when the grass are tall, they may even stand on their hind feet to hear better. Aardvark sniff out ants putting their nose flat on the ground. When an ant nest is detected they quickly dig into the soil, find the nest, and lick up their prey with their long tongue. Contrarily to the belief, an aardvark's tongue is not thin and round. The tongue is broad and flat but can be rolled narrower to reach deeper into small chambers and tunnels. Only the first five centimeters of tongue are used and when needed they quickly dig deeper to reach their prey. The prey sticks to the wet surface of the tongue and are quickly gulp up. Occasionally some red ant species viciously fight back by biting, sending the aardvark darting through the veld with a flap of the ears and a roll or two. Aardvark look clumsy but run fast, they can easily out run a person or gallop away to disappear into the inauspicious night. Aardvark receives a lot of moisture from the utilization of the ants and termites they feed on. They are independent of water. Although very seldom, aardvark can be seen using their tongue to lap up water like a dog. Aardvark utilize various objects to scratch and rid themselves from biting ants or the irritating chemical defenses of termites. If their own scratching claws can't relieve the irritation they often use tree trunks, rocks, termite mounds, old stumps or even a researcher's leg to scratch themselves and rid themselves from the irritation. Aardvark have a wide habitat tolerance but are not common and any farmer or land owner should be proud to have them on his farm. Their distribution is governed by the availability of food in their undisturbed natural savannah habitat. Ants and termites largely constitute the diet of the aardvark. Bearing in mind that termites can cause a huge grass foliage decrease and thus a decrease in the carrying capacity of the veld, aardvark and other insect feeders like aardwolf are hugely beneficial to pastorial farmers. Kingdom (1971) found that aardvarks play a huge economically importance by reducing crop-damaging termites by up to 60%. Aardvark easily and eagerly sniff out the succulent deeper underground termites Hodotermes. These termites are found several meters underground but the aardvark's acute sense of smell allows them to accurately determine the locate the underground nest. Aardvark may spend up to three hours feeding at such a hole. Aardvark may walk several kilometers and spend an average of six hours per night searching for food.
The ecological role of the aardvark does not stop at reducing the ant and termite harvesting of crops and browsable grass layer availability. Aardvark indirectly facilitates the environment for other animal species. With its strong claws, aardvark can easily and viciously break and penetrate the hard crust of the snouted harvester termite (Trinervitermes trinervoides) mounds. A recent study indicates that aardvark utilise more termite mounds during the cold winter months than during summer months. This may either be due to the decrease in ant activity and availability during the cold nights or because termite mounds provide a better source of energy during this period when it is needed most.
The termites in these mounds make use of a chemical defense liquid that the soldier termites squirt onto the attacker. The liquid consists of terpines that irritate the skin of the attacker. During these cold months the availability of above ground termites such as the harvester termites Hodotermes mossambicus, are very scarce and it can often be seen how aardwolf follow aardvark to feed at termite mounds once the aardvark has left. The following day, Ant-eating Chats, Myrmecocichla formicivora, also utilise the open termite mounds to feed on the left over dead termites scattered around.
Aardvark thus facilitates the supplementary feeding of these species during the harsh winter months. Old excavated mounds may also be utilised by various species as hideouts. The Cape Centipede-eater or Black-headed snake Aparallactus capensis and common Egg-eater Dasypeltis scabra are also often found in old termite mounds where they hibernate and hide during cold winter months. Occasionally have I also found the Pygmy mouse Mus minutoides and the Big eared mouse Malacothrix typica to inhabit or seek refuge in old termite mounds. Termite mounds that have been opened by aardvark provide a safe refuge for many species, especially if the mound has been “cleaned out” by an aardvark and no longer houses termites. The Lesser dwarf shrew Suncus varilla, one of the smallest and lightest mammal species on earth utilise old opened termite mounds by nesting deep within the mound. These small shrews move through bigger termite tunnels within the mound and construct a neat round nest of broad grass leaflets deep within the mound. Nesting within the mounds provides a safe microclimate, especially for the small shrews that are sensitive to temperature changes.
Aardvark burrows are also utilised by many species who are often unable to make their own. These include various species such as the Ant-eating Chats, jackal, hyenas, warthogs, aardwolfs, mongoose, black-footed cats and porcupine. Smithers (1971) recorded 17 species of mammals that utilise aardvark burrows and also mentioned that the survival of some of these species may depend on the shelter which these burrows can provide. The Ant-eating Chat often use and occupy a burrow by creating a nesting site in the roof of the burrow near the entrance. This is occurs especially in dryer habitats were other nesting sites and protective vegetation becomes scarce. Recently it has been found that the highly endangered Blue swallow also utilize aardvark burrows as safe nesting sites. Facilitating the environment for various other animal species, aardvark are hugely beneficial to game ranches. The tourists potential of aardvark can also contribute to the uniqueness of tourist based wildlife areas. Aardvark, like leopard, are one of the species least seen, but most appreciated when seen by tourists. Diggings under fences concerns farmers and most often aardvark are wrongly blamed. Warthog and jackal are mostly responsible for these diggings through and under fences. Another concern amongst farmers are the shelter aardvark burrows provide for jackal and porcupine; two unpopular species amongst farmers. It must however be realized that the advantages of having aardvark far outweighs not having them in the area.
Little is known about the breeding behaviour of aardvark. Mating occurs during spring in the Southern parts of Africa and gestation is estimated at between 235 and 258 days.
A single young is born during the winter months and normally spends several weeks underground suckling from its mother. When the juvenile appears above ground it has already grown considerably and will follow the mother or stay in close vicinity for a few more weeks before moving off to establish its own territory. Territories of aardvark may overlap and males tend to stick to their own territories. During mating season males may fight for female partner/s. The females usually seek the male but males can also follow the female scent and wander outside their territory.
Aardvark may fall prey to lion and leopard but their acute sense of smell and sound together with their elephant like skin are good protection in area where these predators occur. Occasions where hyena prey on young have also been reported. The biggest threats to aardvark are human influence and the disappearance of suitable habitat. The Shona culture in Zimbabwe believes that the aardvark are used by witch doctors as transport during the night. Other African cultures have been recorded to utilize aardvark as a meat source. The aardvark has been around since ancient times. Bushmen paintings of aardvark in the Northern province prove that these animals even fascinated the bushmen. It is extraordinary to realize that even they encountered and engraved aardvark sightings on their telltale walls.
The survival of aardvark and its vital, yet simple link between other animals depends on the conservation of natural habitat with a sufficient food source. Farmers and wildlife managers play a major role in the conservation of these areas, and may in the long-term benefit from protecting an important species such as the aardvark.
Aardvark currently has least vulnerable status according to the Red Data Book. This is probably due to insufficient data and the fact that very little is known about these shy nocturnal creatures. They are also one of the species very difficult to be kept by zoos.
The importance of the aardvark as key species can however not be exclamated enough. Readers are urged and welcome to contact the author regarding information, sightings and/or evidence of aardvark in their area. This will be greatly appreciated and will help to compile a more accurate distribution map for aardvark. Things to look out for are: Freshly opened termite mounds, aardvark burrows and small or large diggings ten centimeters to up to a few meters into the soil.