The aardvark (Orycteropus afer) makes its home in southern Africa and is a solitary, nearly-hairless mammalian omnivore with an average lifespan of 11 years and a rather transparent interest in being first on alphabetized lists.
The aardvark goes by a few different nicknames (‘anteater,’ ‘antbear,’ ‘antscarfer,’ ‘antchugger,’ ‘antmuncher,’ and ‘antaardvark,’ as well as ‘Gary’ (we’re assuming) to its friends). Its real name derives from Afrikaans/Dutch words that translate to ‘earth pig.’ The pig part is obvious, although aardvarks share no close phylogenetic relation with swine. The earth adjective doesn’t seem to add much in the way of description. You are an earth person. This is an earth animal review. No help there. Whatever.
Maybe the earth in earth pig refers to the aardvark’s extreme tendency to burrow. Don’t judge. If you lived in Sub-Saharan Africa with all those lions, leopards and snakes wandering around, and you weren’t exactly Florence Griffith-Joyner in the savanna grass, and plus you looked like you might taste like bacon, you’d dig like a bastard too.
It is precisely because of its burrowing that the aardvark holds a special place in the hearts of biologists and tiny rodents alike. In fact, like the affable sea otter (sea otter, B+, Animal Review, 5/6/08), the aardvark is considered a keystone species. Why? It offers an important service. Frequent burrowing means lots of holes in the ground. And lots of holes in the ground means lots of great places for small animals to hide when the wind smells of Panthera leo.
It’s kind of like when your roommate’s girlfriend or boyfriend comes over all the time and never leaves, so you call your buddy and hang out with them. You have buddies, African animals have aardvarks. QED.
Is she gone?
Another respectable thing about aardvarks is they love to sleep in. On a typical day, the aardvark will emerge from its earthly burrow around the crack of sundown to get busy hunting for termites and ants, which it sniffs out with its enormous porcine snout. On a typical evening, a single aardvark might eat 50,000 insects, scooping them up with a thick, sticky tongue or sucking them in like a giant dust buster. Ants and termites blow, so everyone’s cool with that.
One last thing: despite the nickname “anteater,” and the fact it eats ants, the aardvark is not related to the South American anteater. Aardvarks are order Tubulidentata. South American anteaters are order Pilosa, suborder Vermilingua.
Please stop confusing that. It makes you look bad.