10 Incredible Aardvark Facts

Written by Jennifer Gaeng
Published: August 7, 2022
© Heather Paul / Creative Commons
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Aardvarks are African critters with many interesting things about them. From the extent of their secret tunnels to their taste for aardvark cucumbers, even though the name “aardvark” may seem strange to some, the medium-sized burrowing nocturnal aardvark is indigenous to Africa.

What then makes the aardvark so unique? Here are 10 incredible aardvark facts you probably didn’t know!

1.      Aardvarks are the only surviving species of their order

Only the aardvark survived extinction among the Tubulidentata family, with fossils representing the remaining majority species.

©Neil Turner / Flickr

As evidenced by fossils, Tubulidentata were not numerous when they first appeared in Africa 65 million years ago, long after the dinosaurs went extinct. “Tubulidentata” refers to the group of mammals known for teeth composed of bunches of protein-filled tubes, and this protein is called Vaso dentin. Aardvarks are born with “normal” teeth under their snouts, but they fall out quickly and never grow back.

2.      Aardvarks had their nicknames coined from their looks

It wasn’t until the Dutch colonists arrived that they realized how much the aardvark liked to burrow.

©CucombreLibre / Flickr

Tubulidentata genus Orycteropus is the term given to the about 15 aardvark species that are still in existence today. This term means “burrowing foot” in Greek. While humans and aardvarks had coexisted for millennia near the south of Africa, it wasn’t until the Dutch colonists arrived there that they realized how much the aardvark liked to burrow. We can only speculate about what the aardvark was known for in these parts by the local indigenous peoples. Other names for this creature are earth pig, ant bear, and cape anteater.

3.      Aardvarks are known to dig huge burrows

Wild dogs, warthogs, owls, and snakes are just a few of the animals that commonly inhabit aardvark burrows after the aardvarks have moved on.

©Eden, Janine and Jim / Flickr

In addition to its “home burrow,” an adult aardvark digs up many smaller tunnels where it can shelter or rest while hunting for food. Aardvarks can dig burrows as deep as 30 to 40 feet.

Young aardvarks rely on their home burrow as a haven during mating season, when they are particularly vulnerable to predators. Wild dogs, warthogs, owls, and snakes are just a few of the animals that commonly inhabit aardvark burrows after the aardvarks have moved on.

4.      Aardvarks “chew” with their stomachs

An Aardvark may easily consume 50,000 in a single go when devouring termites and ants each night.

©Gareth Evans / Flickr

Aardvark stomachs are powerful enough to “chew” their food into an easily digestible form after they’ve swallowed it whole. This phenomenon may be because of their teeth’s unique structure. The presence of aardvarks at African watering holes would be extremely dangerous, considering the substantial number of predators present. This mammal’s tasty diet provides the bulk of the hydration it requires.

An Aardvark may easily consume 50,000 in a single go when devouring termites and ants each night. While it is mostly insectivorous, it will also consume the Aardvark cucumber. This particular vegetation grows from the seeds that are dispersed by aardvark feces.

5.      The Aardvark was the star of a long-running graphic novel

Cerebus was a parody that mimicked Marvel’s version of Conan the Barbarian.

©Abi Skipp / Flickr

Cerebus the aardvark, a grumpy antihero who appeared in more than 300 issues of comic books, is probably unknown to most people who aren’t comic book geeks. The first issue was published in 1977, and the last was published in 2004.

There was just one other anthropomorphized animal in Cerebus’s imagined universe: an aardvark, which no one seemed to be surprised. A couple more magical aardvarks were discovered near the end of the series.

6.      They may have inspired the Egyptian god named “Set”

Aardvarks have been closely linked to the Egyptian god, Set, due to their striking facial resemblance.

©Michael Pereckas / Flickr

The Egyptian god, Set, is said to have had aardvark-like features. This claim became widely accepted as Egyptian merchants returned from their trips south with tales of aardvarks.

There are several other animals whose heads may bear semblance to the Egyptian god, Set, including donkeys, jackals (fennecs), and giraffes. Set is a lesser-known God in pop culture than the Egyptian gods Osiris and Anubis, whose origins also have heads of other creatures.

7.      Aardvarks can grow as large as an adult human

An aardvark has five toes on its hind feet and four on its front feet.

©MontageMan / Creative Commons

Aardvarks are distinguished by their small, stubby legs, long snouts and ears, beady, black eyes, and noticeably arched backs. If you can approach a living specimen, you will also note that it has five toes on its hind feet and four on its front feet. Each toe has a flat, shovel-shaped nail that resembles a cross between a hoof and a claw.

Aardvarks are larger than most people think; they may weigh anything from 130 to 180 pounds, which puts them well in the middle of the weight range for fully grown human males and females. However, most people think of them as being around the size of anteaters.

8.      Anteaters are their only distant relative

The anteater is the only distant relative of the aardvark.

©Chris Bartnik / Flickr

Sometimes, aardvarks are mistaken for anteaters, so much so that they are sometimes referred to as “Cape” anteaters. Aardvarks and anteaters are both mammals, and their similarities can be traced to convergent evolution. Otherwise, they are completely unrelated.

Animals that live in similar environments and eat comparable foods tend to have similar characteristics. Regarding habitat, aardvarks can only be found in sub-Saharan Africa, whereas anteaters can only be found in the Americas.

9.      Aardvarks live in Sub-Saharan Africa

Madagascar, home to almost 25,000 animal species, is not one of the aardvark’s known habitats.

©Marie Hale / Flickr

Despite its bizarre appearance, the aardvark may be found all over Sub-Saharan Africa, including grasslands, bushlands, savannas, and even a few isolated mountain ranges. The only reason aardvarks avoid marshes and lowlands is that they cannot dig their burrows deeply enough to avoid colliding with standing water.

Having been separated from Africa approximately 135 million years ago, Madagascar, home to almost 25,000 animal species, is not one of the aardvark’s known habitats.

10.   Aardvarks have the strongest sense of smell of all animals

animals with big noses: aardvark
Aardvarks use their nose to craft tools and weapons and to hunt.

©iStock.com/AB Photography

The epithelial tissues surrounding the bones enhance the aardvark’s perception of a smell. They can detect the scents of insects and grubs from considerable distances because their brains are packed with powerful olfactory neurons, and these neurons help to process the scent.


The Featured Image

aardvark_9
An aardvark resting in the dirt.
© Heather Paul / Creative Commons

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About the Author

A substantial part of my life has been spent as a writer and artist, with great respect to observing nature with an analytical and metaphysical eye. Upon close investigation, the natural world exposes truths far beyond the obvious. For me, the source of all that we are is embodied in our planet; and the process of writing and creating art around this topic is an attempt to communicate its wonders.

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