- Common Name:
- Scientific Name:
- Proteles cristata
- Average Life Span:
- Seven years
- About three to 3.5 feet long
- Between 17 and 30 pounds
- IUCN Red List Status:
- Least concern
What is an aardwolf?
The aardwolf is neither aardvark nor wolf. Their name, which means “earth wolf” in Afrikaans, refers to their underground dens and canine-like appearance (though they’re more closely related to cats).
Aardwolves are one of four hyena species in the subfamily Hyaenidae, along with spotted hyenas, striped hyenas, and brown hyenas. Like all hyenas, aardwolves’ front legs are longer than their back legs, allowing for a loping, low-energy gait that they can sustain for long distances. A mane running down their back can bristle up when agitated, making the animals look bigger than they are.
Aardwolves most closely resemble the striped hyena, with long muzzles; large, pointed ears; and black stripes on gold fur.
The species lives exclusively in Africa, within two distinct populations: One on the eastern side of the continent, from the tip of Egypt south through central Tanzania, and another in the south, ranging from central Angola and Mozambique down through South Africa.
These nocturnal mammals live in dry, open savannas and grasslands, taking shelter and raising their young in abandoned burrows that they enlarge themselves.
Most hyenas are famously carnivorous, but aardwolves prefer insects to large prey.
At night, aardwolves emerge from their dens in search of mound-building termites, which they lap up with their long, sticky tongues by the thousands (and sometimes hundreds of thousands). By not destroying termite mounds—as the aardvark does to access termites—aardwolves can rely on the constant supply of food.
Most mammals are deterred by the chemical defenses of soldier termites, which guard the nest, but the aardwolf has genetic trait that allows them to tolerate the insects’ noxious secretions.
Predators such as leopards, lions, and spotted hyenas will kill both adult aardwolves and cubs. Black-backed jackals often target aardwolf cubs.
Females go into estrus only once a year, during which the normally solitary animals come together to mate. Aardwolves develop pair bonds during mating season, though sometimes both males and females will mate with other animals as well.
Gestation lasts about 90 days, with litters consisting of one to four cubs. Born with their eyes closed, cubs are dependent on mom, who nurses them for four months.
When they’re about six weeks old, aardwolf cubs start to emerge from their den. At about one year old, both male and female aardwolves leave their mother and establish their own territory.
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature, which last assessed the aardwolf in 2014, found it to be a species of little concern, with thriving populations throughout many national parks and reserves.
Loss of habitat due to human development can be problematic for aardwolves, especially when farmers destroy the termite mounds the animals rely on for food.
DID YOU KNOW
Aardwolves are such termite specialists that their meat-grinding teeth have become reduced to flattened pegs. They still have sharp canines, however, which they use in self-defense.
Aardwolves can eat between 200,000 and 300,000 termites a night.
In winter, when termites are scarce, aardwolves lower their metabolisms by 11 percent, for instance by spending more time underground to conserve energy.