The Aardvark (Orycteropus afer) or ‘Earth-pig’ / ‘African Ant-bear’ is a fascinating animal. It is perhaps best known in England as the animal that appears first in the dictionary. However, this may not have been included in the original, Oxford dictionary had it not been for the editor James Murray. Murray overrode the advice of his assistant who had feared the word was too ‘technical’ to appear in a general dictionary.
The Aardvark as an animal is perhaps even more fascinating. It is the only extant species of a primitive group of mammals that have lived since the time of the dinosaurs. The order, Tubulidentata (meaning tube-footed) is said to have African origins and this is where you can find the Aardvark. Where other members of the Tublindentata have not survived, the Aardvark has been able to become the top of its food chain. In fact, the only thing that has been known to predate on Aardvarks on humans and hyenas.
The Aardvark is nocturnal and as darkness falls, it leaves the safety of its burrow and looks for food. It puts its super sensitive nose to the ground and looking for its prey. Its nose has more bones than any other mammal nose and it is the key weapon in tracking down its food source: Termites. Once they find a termite habitat, they begin to dig. The speed at which a termite can dig is incredible; 2 feet in 15 seconds. Once it has got into the termite lair, it begins to use its 30 cm long tongue to pick up and eat the prey. One Aardvark can eat up to 50,000 termites in one night! It is able to withstand the termites defensive bites and scratches thanks to its tough skin and its ability to close the nostrils of its nose at will.
Finally, the Aardvark has created a very beneficial relationship with a plant called the ‘Aardvark cucumber’. This plant grows its fruit underground and so only the Aardvark is able to dig up the fruit and eat it. The Aardvarks only seek the fruit when the water is scarce and once they have eaten the fruit, it buries the seeds back into the earth so that the plant can regrow. This has led to the fruit to gaining the rather affectionate name of ‘Aardvark Dung’ by the local villagers.