- Common Name:
- Scientific Name:
- Orycteropus afer
- Average Life Span In Captivity:
- 23 years
- Head and body: 43 to 53 inches; tail: 21 to 26 inches
- 110 to 180 pounds
- IUCN Red List Status:
- Least concern
- Current Population Trend:
What is an aardvark?
As burrowing mammals with porcine snouts, aardvarks are true to their name, which translates to “earth pig” in the Afrikaans language.
The nocturnal animals use their long noses and keen sense of smell to sniff out ants and termites, which they lap up with an anteater-like tongue covered in sticky saliva. These insects make up most of the aardvark’s diet, although they’ll occasionally eat beetle larvae.
Aardvarks use their long, powerful claws to tear open termite mounds, as well as dig underground burrows in which they sleep and care for their young.
Once abandoned, these well-constructed burrows, which can have many entrances, are recycled by other animals, including reptiles, amphibians, mammals, and birds. Porcupines and hyenas may modify the burrows for their use, for instance by expanding the entrance. (Related: Why some animals are more important to ecosystems than others.)
Aardvarks have stocky bodies, pinkish gray or grayish brown skin, and a short tail. To thrive in their sub-Saharan habitat, the insectivores sport large, rabbity ears that disperse heat, sparse body hair, and thick skin that’s impervious to insect bites.
People rarely see aardvarks, mostly because they’re solitary, nocturnal, and spend so much time underground. They also lack the reflective tissue that makes the eyes of some animals glow in the dark.
Because of the aardvark’s elusive nature, little is known about its mating habits in the wild.
Males and females come together briefly to mate. Gestation lasts eight months, after which a female births a single cub. The baby, hairless and about six pounds, is born during a peak time of food availability—either before or during the rainy season.
The mother stays in the burrow with her offspring for two weeks, at which time the baby can accompany her on foraging trips outside the burrow. Young aardvarks can eat solid food at three months, and are fully weaned and on their own at six or seven months.
The International Union for the Conservation of Species considers the aardvark a species of “least concern,” meaning their populations are stable. The species has robust numbers in protected areas, such as South Africa’s Kruger National Park.
Aardvarks do face threats, however, including habitat loss from agricultural development and a decline in insect prey due to pesticides.
In Zambia and Mozambique, the bushmeat trade is a threat to aardvarks, according to the IUCN. Some are also poached for their teeth, which are believed to prevent illness and are worn as good luck charms by some tribes.
Aardvarks may also be susceptible to drought, one of the effects of climate change in Africa. In 2013, hot, dry conditions in South Africa’s Tswalu Kalahari Reserve killed off some of the aardvarks’ insect prey. Unable to regulate their metabolism, several aardvarks died.