The Aardvark, Orycteropus afer is the only living member of the order Tubulidentata. Little is really know about these animals, most is legend and myth. The teeth are considered good luck charms, the bristly hairs that cover its body are ground to powder to make poison, and its claws are supposed to ensure a good harvest. That and they supposedly taste like pork. They are nocturnal and solitary, and no one has actually observed an aardvark using its tongue to catch the ants and termites it feeds on, although that is the presumed method it uses. Aardvarks do not need to chew their food, as part of their stomach functions like a gizzard. They live in burrows and little is known about their reproductive habits.

The aardvark is not the same animal as the anteater. They do not live on the same side of the Atlantic (Africa and South America, respectively) and despite a similar diet, they are not even related—though they were once thought to be related to anteaters and armadillos ( pangolins were also in that group and later found to have a separate Order, themselves). The similar shape, particularly in the snout, as well as the long tongue (with its sticky saliva) are thought to be results of convergent evolution rather than relatedness (which ends at the Subclass level of Eutheria, or placental mammals).

In fact, the aardvark isn't much related to many animals beyond that level. It has its own Order (Tubulidentata), Family (Orycteropodidae), Genus (Orycteropus), and is the single species. This taxonomically lonely creature is Orycteropus afer (from two Greek words meaning "a tool for digging" and "foot" and Latin for Africa).

The aardvark is considered a subungulate and the last surviving member of its particular lineage. While it isn't thought to be closely related to the Order Xenarthra (anteaters, armadillos, sloths; sometimes the Order is called Edentata) or Polidota (pangolins), they are thought to be more closely related to Sirenia ( manatees and dugongs), Hyracoidea ( hyraxes), and Proboscidea ( elephants).

That out of the way...the aadrvark. Many people know that the name comes from Afrikaans meaning "earth pig" (probably due to sightings of the animal out rooting around termite mounds) and that they eat termites and ants. And that's about it. But there is much more to this interesting creature. A few to start with. The Swahili name is Muhanga and unlike its previously supposed relatives, the aardvark is not purely an insectivore. It has been known to eat small mice on occasion and a wild cucumber that is referred to as the "aardvark pumpkin." Its stomach is similar to a gizzard.

Length (body): 110 cm (44 inches)
Length (tail): 60-70 cm (24-28 inches)
Length (tongue): up to 35 cm (13.7 inches)
Height (at shoulder): 60 cm (24 inches)
Weight: 60-80 kg (132-176 pounds)

The aardvark is found exclusively in Africa (some fossil remains suggest that ancestors may have been in North America), primarily a sub-Saharan animal. It is quite widely spread with the exception of the rain forest regions on the West coast. Pretty much anywhere a rich supply of termites can be found, so can the aardvark.

Another necessity is good soil for digging (too hard and it will look elsewhere). The aardvark is an amazing digger with webbed toes and hard nails (sort of an intermediate between nails and hooves). Its short, powerful legs have four digits on the front feet and five on the rear (the rear legs are slightly longer). This enables them not only to dig into the hard termite mounds for food but to create their burrows which can be 2-3 m (6.5-9.8 feet) which end in a chamber where the nocturnal creature "balls up" to sleep during the day. Longer burrows of as much as 13 m (43 feet) with multiple entrances have been found. Such an accomplished digger, the aardvark can actually use burrowing as a means of escape and animals have been found that were able to dig away faster than several men with shovels.

Aardvarks have a sort of grey-brown hide with a small amount of brownish or yellowish hair. Unlike the anteater, whose thick hair protects it from insect bites, the aardvark's tough skin performs that function. The back is slightly arched and the tail is short and tapers to a point. It has longish ears which it tends to hold close to itself and nostrils that can be closed (ideal for a digging animal). It has a long, narrow snout (similar to those animals it was once thought to be so closely related).

The animal has an excellent sense of smell and hearing but rather poor eyesight. They have been known to run into bushes and trees when startled into fleeing—though the animal is not defenseless and will use its strong legs and claws for protection, even rolling onto its back to attack with all four legs.

Then there are the teeth, which might be one of the oddest things about this creature. There are no incisors or canines and only cheek teeth toward the back of the jaw. So unlike anteaters, the aardvark does have teeth (technically anteater embryos have teeth but they are reabsorbed by the body prior to birth). But they aren't ordinary teeth. Its Order name comes from the peculiar characteristics of the teeth: Tubulidentata, meaning "tubule toothed." Unlike most mammals, the teeth have no hard enamel covering the tooth and are made of dentine arranged in hexagonal columns called prisms. They do have a coating of cementum which is usually found surrounding the root in most mammals. The aardvark's teeth, on the other hand, have no roots and, similar to a rodent, continue growing throughout its lifespan.

The aardvark is a generally solitary creature and males and females occupy separate burrows. Since only the females maintain consistent ranges, it is thought aardvarks are polygamous. The gestation period is about seven months and the timing varies, probably due to the rainy season. The usual litter is one, but sometimes two will be born. The young are born pink and without hair, weighing 1.8-2.2 kg (4-5 pounds). They do not leave the burrow for at least two weeks, eat their first solid food at three months, and are nursed for four. About six months after birth the young are ready to dig on their own and usually leave the mother at that time (the females usually stay until another baby is born). Sexual maturity comes at two years and aardvarks have been known to live up to 23 years.

They are not endangered but have had decreases in numbers due to hunting by humans for food (yes, said to taste like pork), sport (the animal, though nocturnal and able to dig quickly, is quite slow), and " curios" (claws, for instance, used as charms or souvenirs). Natural predators include lions, hyenas, and leopards.

More interesting facts about the aardvark:

  • Aardvarks are actually pretty good swimmers.
  • It can travel up to 10 km (6.2 miles) a night, zigzagging across the ground in search of food.
  • The aardvark is colorblind.
  • They have been heard to make sounds (like a grunt or a bleat) when frightened.
  • Aardvarks are very important in termite control, though their burrows can damage farmland and can make it hazardous for vehicles and horses.
  • Empty burrows are used as homes to all sorts of other animals, including small mammals, birds, crocodiles, and the aardwolf (also not related).
  • The aardvark also has the peculiar habit of burying its feces in shallow holes about 10 cm (3.9 inches) deep. It is thought to be done to avoid detection of other aardvarks.

"It starts with an 'A'
Aardvark! Aardvark!
And ends with a 'K',
Aardvark! Aardvark!"

The song's supposed to be to the tune of the Blue Danube Waltz, but most of us were giggling so hard we couldn't carry a tune.

"Not easy to say
Aardvark! Aardvark!
But try anyway
Aardvark! Aardvark!"

We were all supposed to be going out to dinner; Joe had gone upstairs to wake his girlfriend Tessa from her nap. Five minutes later, the ceiling of the old house started to creak. Rhythmically.

They were up there aardvarking! Right after Joe had made us promise to wait for them!

We were hungry. We were faced with a decision: hie our hungry selves to the restaurant and leave the lovers behind, or figure out a way to get them dressed and downstairs?

In lieu of going upstairs and pounding on their door, Steph started singing "The Aardvark Song", which she'd learned at girl scout camp when she was a child. Soon, we were all singing it at the top of our lungs. Our serenade was probably less subtle than knocking down their door.

"It eats ants all day
Aardvark! Aardvark!
At rest and at play
Aardvark! Aardvark!"

I suspect it was Joe Bob Briggs who first popularized the use of "aardvarking" as a euphemism for fooling around. He certainly uses it with great frequency in his humorous reviews of schlocky horror flicks. The term most obviously implies the impressive sucking tongue action the ant-eating aardvark is known for. It also has a certain onomatopoeia to it. If you have a certain twist to your mind, you can perhaps imagine someone in the throes of ecstasy: "Aard ... vark! Aard! Vark! AARD! VARK!"

And, of course, it's a very, very silly term for what is often a silly-looking activity.

"It's spelled in this way:
Double A, R-D-V-A-R-K
Aardvark! Aardvark!"

We only had to go through the song twice before Joe and Tessa hurried downstairs, red-faced but smiling.

Aard"-vark` (#), n. [D., earth-pig.] Zool.

An edentate mammal, of the genus Orycteropus, somewhat resembling a pig, common in some parts of Southern Africa. It burrows in the ground, and feeds entirely on ants, which it catches with its long, slimy tongue.


© Webster 1913.

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