Aardvark (Orycteropus afer)

Also known as: Ant bear
French: Oryctérope
GenusOrycteropus (1)
SizeTotal length: 140 - 220 cm (2)
Tail length: 44 - 71 cm (2)
Weight40 - 100 kg (2)
Top facts

The aardvark is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1).

While the bizarre and elusive aardvark (Orycteropus afer) may look vaguely similar in appearance to a pig (aardvark literally means ‘earthpig’ in Afrikaans (3)), it is actually the only member of the order Tubulidentata (2). The aardvark has a stocky, arched body sparsely covered with bristly hair, a short neck, a long and muscular tail and long, pointed ears (2). The aardvark also has a flexible, tubular snout and a long, extensible tongue, which together are perfectly suited to searching out and consuming a diet of ants and termites (3) (4). The thick skin of the aardvark ranges in colour from pale yellowish-grey to pinkish (4) (5), although this is often stained darker grey or reddish-brown from the soil in which it burrows (4). Its short, powerful limbs bear large, sharp, shovel-shaped claws, four on the forefeet, five on each hindfoot, which enable the aardvark to dig with ease (2). 

The aardvark is widely distributed in Africa south of the Sahara, from Senegal, east to Ethiopia and south to South Africa, although it is absent from the Namib Desert in south-western Africa (1).

Within its large range, the aardvark occurs in a great variety of habitats, including grasslands, rainforests, savanna and woodland, with its presence largely dictated by the distribution of suitable ant and termite species (1). It shows a preference for areas of sandy soil (5), and will avoid rocky ground that is hard to dig in and habitats that are extremely dry (1).

The elusive aardvark is primarily a nocturnal animal (1), spending the day curled up in its burrow asleep (5). However, it can occasionally be spotted venturing outside in the daylight on a cold afternoon (1), or early in the morning when it may sun itself by the burrow’s entrance (5). At night the aardvark leaves the safety of its burrow and begins its search for food (5). It feeds almost exclusively on a smorgasbord of ant and termite species (3), and will search for prey by travelling in a zigzag path, inspecting a strip of ground about 30 metres wide with its snout (5). The aardvark tends to walk on its claws, somewhat slowly and awkwardly, and on soft ground its dragging tail leaves a trail behind (5).

Once the aardvark has located its food, either after digging into the ground, tearing into a termite nest, or finding an army of ants on the march (5), it gathers its prey with its long, sticky tongue, which can extend to a remarkable 30 centimetres (5). It does not chew its insect prey, of which it can eat over 50,000 each night, but instead swallows it whole and grinds it up in a muscular area of its lower stomach (3). 

Digging is a central feature of the aardvark’s life, and an activity that it is incredibly adept at. Not only does it dig shallow holes in search of food, it also digs burrows, measuring up to three metres long (5), for daytime rest and to escape predators (1), and also excavates extensive tunnel systems in which it gives birth to its young. The burrows may be up to 13 metres long, with numerous chambers and multiple entrances (5). Its powerful limbs and sharp, spoon-shaped claws make easy work of digging (3), even in hard ground, and it can dig a hole faster than several men with shovels (5). The burrows of the aardvark are used by numerous other African animals, from invertebrates to mammals, making the aardvark an important contributor to the ecosystems (1).

The aardvark is a largely solitary animal and is only occasionally seen in the company of other individuals (1), such as when mating and when a young accompanies its mother (5). The female aardvark gives birth to a single naked young after a gestation period of  seven to  nine months. The young aardvark will remain in the burrow for about two weeks before starting to accompany its mother on night time foraging trips. By the age of six months, the young can dig for itself, and by 12 months it has reached the size of an adult.  Sexual maturity is obtained at about two years of age (5).  

Due to its widespread distribution, the global population of the aardvark is not considered to be threatened, but in some areas its numbers have been reduced as a result of human activities (1) and the destruction of its habitat. In many regions, the aardvark is hunted for its meat, and the skin, claws and teeth are also used to make bracelets, charms and curios (1). Even the aardvark’s bristly hair is reportedly sometimes reduced to a powder and regarded as a potent poison when added to the local beer (3).

Aardvark habitat is most often lost to agriculture (1), with intensive crop farming resulting in a decline in aardvark numbers (3). However, not all agriculture has a negative impact on the aardvark; cattle herding may actually benefit this species because trampled ground improves the habitat for termites (3). Conflict with human activities may also arise because aardvark burrows can damage farming equipment, roads, dam walls, and fences, resulting in aardvarks being persecuted by farmers (5) (6). Ironically, in areas where the aardvark and other insect-eating animals have been exterminated, pasture and cereal crops have suffered damage from termites (5).

Because the aardvark has a vast distribution, and occurs in many protected areas, it is not currently believed to be in need of conservation action (1), although this may not be the case locally (7). The aardvark plays such a vital role in many ecosystems, creating burrows for other animals and even limiting the enormous damage that termites can inflict on our crops (5), that hopefully the aardvark will remain unthreatened for the foreseeable future.

Further information on the aardvark and the conservation of other African wildlife: 

Authenticated (14/03/11) by Galen Rathburn. Chair, IUCN-SSC Afrotheria Specialist Group.

  1. IUCN Red List (June, 2008)
  2. Shoshani, J., Goldman, C.A. and Thewissen, J.G.M. (1988) Orycteropus afer. Mammalian Species, 300: 1-8.
  3. Macdonald, D.W. (2006) The Encyclopedia of Mammals. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  4. CITES Species Identification Manual (July, 2008)
  5. Nowak, R.M. (1999) Walker's Mammals of the World. The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, Maryland.
  6. Whittington-Jones, G.M. (2006) The role of aardvarks (Orycteropus afer) as ecosystem engineers in arid and semi-arid landscapes of South Africa. Thesis, Rhodes University.
  7. Rathbun, G. (February, 2011) Pers. comm.