A Bushveld Enigma

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What has ears like a donkey's, an elongated pig-like snout, a tail like a rat's, is as heavy as a man and can dig faster than six men with spades? It is the aardvark, Orycteropus afer, and it is all alone in the world, being the only living species in the order Tubulidentata, which translates into 'tubule style teeth'. 

The closest living relatives to the aardvark are considered to be the elephants, dassies, moles and manatees; not any of the farmyard creatures from which it seems to have borrowed many parts.

The aardvark is an insectivorous animal with a penchant for termites and ants, which it sniffs out with its porcine snout during nightly forays out into the open, and then laps up with a long sticky tongue. Aardvarks are said to consume thousands of these insects in a sitting and the only other food source which they rely on is the aardvark cucumber, Cucumis humofructus. This plant is dependent on the aardvark for its propagation, as the seeds from the cucumber are passed in the animal's dung, which it then buries – effectively planting the seeds.

During the day time, the aardvark is rarely seen, and holes up underground in a deep burrow during the day light hours to avoid the heat. The aardvark is an extremely efficient digger, with all four spade-like feet bearing long sharp nails designed for the purpose, and will dig a new burrow every night during the rainy season. During dry spells they usually occupy the same burrow for up to a week and while nursing their young they will stay put for two weeks in the same burrow.

Aardvarks carry their young for 7 months and the comical looking cubs are born with many wrinkles and floppy ears. After about two weeks they are able to hunt ants for themselves and leave the burrow with their mother, but they will remain with her until the next breeding season. The cubs are fully weaned from around 3 months and will dig their own burrows from about 6 months old.

This unusual animal occurs throughout most of southern Africa and although its numbers are decreasing, it retains a 'least concern' rating from the IUCN. Local tribesmen have great admiration for the aardvark's work ethic and fearless approach to soldier ants and a charm is sometimes made from its body parts for those planning to 'walk through walls'.

An aardvark sighting is a rare privilege indeed, so keep your eyes peeled during your night drives for these extraordinary creatures.

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Thursday, 22 February 2018