The “earthpig”, which is the Afrikaans translation for “aardvark”, is the last extant member of the order Tubulidentata. These nocturnal and solitary African creatures are thought to be most closely related to sengis, golden moles, and tenrecs- three of which are now extinct. So how did the aardvark do it? Why is it the last of its Linnaean order?
For starters, the aardvark is quite fond of eating ants and termites. Like an anteater, it has a tubular and long (though not quite as long as the anteater) snout that make zig-zag sweeping motions as wide as 30 cm when it excavates for food. Naturally, dirt can collect up its nose as it sniffs about, but the soot is held back by thick hairs encircling in the nostrils. Another feature to help the aardvark detect when ants/termites are in “nose-range” is a protruding piece of flesh located between the nostrils. It is believed to be sensitive to prey motion (aka “wriggling” to get away from aardvark mouths).
Once that protruding process detects food, the aardvark furrows a deep V-shaped gulley with its 4-digited front paws and large spatula-like claws. Then with their fly-paper-like tongues, they can extract almost every ant/termite from their mound, but they don’t chew them. Interestingly, the aardvark does not have canines or incisors. Instead they have two upper and lower premolars and three upper and lower molars in each half-jaw, of which all teeth are protected by a material known as cementum instead of enamel- quite unlike other mammals. In order to grind the food, aardvarks possess a pyloric sphincter that acts like a gizzard (the organ used by birds).
So how many insects does an aardvark consume each night on its hunger hunt? The answer: 50,000. Studies show that aardvarks consume 21 different species of ant and 2 species of termite in the effort to target their 50,000 yummies.
Although the aardvark fortunately is not threatened (*big sigh*), concern for its future welfare has developed. Its habitat is being reduced due to encroachment of farmland. It is well-known that aardvarks do not take well to changes in environment. Another concern is due to its cultural significance in the surrounding African communities. Not only are they killed for meat, but also the aardvark is killed to for villagers from the Margbetu, Ayanda, and Logo tribes of the Democratic Republic of the Congo to wear their pre-molars and molars as good luck and pro-health talisman. Locals believe that its claws, if left open in baskets, will increase their harvest. They further believe that pulverizing aardvark hair into a fine powder and then added to their local beer will result in a potent poison.
Such cultural traditions can also reduce aardvark numbers should further habitat loss lead the aardvark to be threatened and then endangered (goodness forbid)! It’s difficult to moderate cultural boundaries, but compromises must be made so as not to potentially sacrifice an entire species.