The aardvark (Orycteropus afer) is a fascinating animal. The only one of its kind, its genus name derives from Greek and means “digging/burrowing footed” while the specific epithet means “from Africa”. A very apt name for this species which is widespread, although seldom seen, across much of the continent.
Aardvarks are masters of digging and are well known for the speed at which they can dig. Apart from smaller foraging burrows, aardvarks will also dig longer, deeper burrows for sleeping in. These shelters are often used for a number of days before a new one is constructed. In the Kalahari environment, aardvarks are known as ‘ecosystem engineers’ because the holes they dig provide crucial refuge for a wide range of other species.
Aardvarks are endowed with big ears – all the better to hear their prey (ants and termites) and to listen out for possible danger signals, including alarm calls by birds that may indicate the presence of a predator such as a lion or leopard.
Regarded by many as nocturnal, aardvarks are frequently active during daylight hours and adjust their activity patterns according to the behaviour of their prey. Aardvarks are myrmecophagous, meaning that they feed on ants and termites, and during the hot summer months, the ants and termites forage close to the surface late in the evening, making them easier to prey on, while during the cooler winter months, these are usually active during the late afternoon. It’s during these times that aardvark on Tswalu are frequently seen by researchers and guests in the field.
Aardvarks drink water, when it’s available. Sadly, the gradual heating up of the Kalahari region due to climate change may increase the moisture needs of aardvarks beyond what they can readily find, thereby leading to the possibility of local extinction. Research on the effects of climate change on aardvarks was conducted on Tswalu by Nora Weyer – and the indications are that there will be increasing pressure on this species in the future due to global warming.
Dylan Smith is Executive Head of the Dedeben Research Centre at Tswalu.