The Aardwolf: A Hyena Relative That Feeds on Termites
Aardwolves are members of the hyena family and live in East and South Africa. They look somewhat like small, striped hyenas. In Afrikaans, the word aardwolf means “earth wolf”, which refers to the animal’s habit of spending the day in an underground burrow. The aardwolf's diet consists almost entirely of termites, which it catches at night with its long, sticky tongue.
Aardwolves are shy animals. While hyenas (or hyaenas) are social creatures that frequently travel in groups, aardwolves usually travel alone. Hyenas hunt both large and small animals and are also scavengers, eating the dead and decaying bodies of other animals. Aardwolves are insectivores, relying on termites for the majority of their diet. They occasionally eat other insects and—according to some researchers—small animals such as mice and birds.
A single aardwolf can consume up to 300,000 termites in one night.— IUCN Hyaena Specialist Group
Distribution and Habitat
The scientific name of the aardwolf is Proteles cristata. Despite its name, the animal is not a wolf. Aardwolves are classified in the same family as hyenas (the Hyaenidae) but in a different subfamily. They are sometimes referred to as a type of hyena instead of a hyena relative.
Aardwolves live in two separate areas in Africa. There is one population in southern Africa and another in eastern and northeastern Africa, as shown in the map above. Most scientists consider these populations to be different subspecies. The southern animals are classified as Proteles cristata cristata and the northeastern animals as Proteles cristata septentrionalis.
The animals inhabit grasslands as well as open woodlands and rocky areas. They generally use a burrow created by another animal, such as an aardvark or a springhare, but sometimes create their own den. A particular burrow seems to be a temporary home for an aardwolf. Research suggests that after about eight weeks the animal moves to a new den.
The aardwolf has an interesting appearance. It has yellow or reddish-brown fur with black stripes on its sides and legs. Its head is narrow and has large ears and a dark muzzle. Its eyes are also dark and face forward. Adding to its somewhat unusual appearance is its long neck. The animal's tail is bushy and is black on its bottom half. Its underside is paler than its upper surface and is often grey-white in colour.
The fur on an aardwolf's back and on the back of its neck is longer than on the rest of the body and is known as a mane. The mane is black or dark grey and is raised when the aardwolf is frightened or aggressive. This makes the animal look larger than it really is. It also makes it look more intimidating.
Like hyenas, an aardwolf has longer front legs than back legs, so it appears to have a sloping back. This effect is less noticeable than in hyenas, however. Aardwolves have four toes on each back foot, like a hyena, but five toes on each front foot. Hyenas have only four toes on each front foot.
Adult aardwolves weigh between 8 and 12 kilograms (17.6 to 26.5 pounds) and are about 0.5 metres tall (1.6 feet) at the shoulder. Their average head and body length is about 0.95 meters (3.1 feet). They are noticeably smaller than hyenas.
An Aardwolf in Captivity
An aardwolf feeds mainly on harvester termites belonging to the genus Trinervitermes. It locates these insects by smell and sound when they are out of their mounds and moving through the grass. The aardwolf has a excellent sense of hearing. In winter or during the rainy season (depending on the part of Africa where it lives), the animal supplements its diet with other types of termites. It also eats other insects at times and may occasionally catch and eat small animals.
Unlike anteaters, aardwolves don’t break into termite mounds or dig in the soil to find the insects. Instead, they lick termites from soil and grass, picking them up with their long tongues and sticky saliva. They aren't hurt by the poison that is released by termite soldiers.
An aardwolf has large jaws and long canine teeth, or fangs, but its back teeth are much smaller than those of a hyena. These teeth are adequate for crunching termite bodies but not for crushing bones from large prey animals.
Relaxing in a Burrow
Aardwolves are sometimes said to eat carrion (decaying animal bodies), but this may a false assumption. Researchers have discovered that when an aardwolf appears to be feeding on a carcass, it's actually eating beetles and insect larvae in the dead body.
Aardwolves are primarily nocturnal but are sometimes seen in the day. They usually search for food alone. They are occasionally seen in pairs or small groups. Even though the adults forage on their own, a male and a female may live together, at least during the breeding season. The pair maintain a territory by frequently marking its boundaries and the current den with a secretion released from their anal glands. There are multiple dens within the territory.
Aardwolves don’t vocalize much, but they do produce a growl, a roar, or a bark to warn predators and intruders trying to enter their territory. The animals raise their mane to threaten intruders and chase or fight them if necessary. Both the male and the female defend the territory.
Areas within the territory are reserved for urination and defecation. Researchers call these areas middens or latrines. They've observed that aardwolves dig a hole in the midden before they use it and then fill in the hole afterwards.
Eating a Meal
Aardwolves are largely independent of water (except during prolonged cold spells), satisfying their moisture requirements from termites.— IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature)
A female aardwolf may not be fertilized by her partner. Males in neighbouring territories may be able to mate with her, especially if these males are more dominant than her partner. Mating usually takes place in July, at least in the southern part of the animal's range.
The aardwolf’s gestation period is about 90 days. The female gives birth in a den and produces an average litter size of two to four cubs. Males frequently guard the cubs while the female looks for food, which is a great help in ensuring their survival. Jackals are the chief predators of the cubs and are sometimes able to kill the adults, too.
Some Very Young Cubs
The cubs emerge from the den about one month after their birth, but they still suckle from their mother. They begin to forage for termites around the den when they are about nine weeks old. A few weeks later they travel away from the den to forage with an adult. They don't move far from their home, however. By the time the cubs are about four months old they are completely weaned. At this point they begin to forage on their own.
The cubs leave the territory when the next year's litter is born, which is generally when the youngsters are about a year old. In captivity, aardwolves have lived between fifteen and twenty years. They may not live this long in the wild, where predators and disease may be encountered.
Population Threats and Status
Since the aardwolf resembles a small hyena in appearance, farmers have sometimes incorrectly assumed that it kills livestock as hyenas do. Some aardwolves have been killed for this reason. The IUCN says that this is not a big problem today, however, since most farmers are well aware of the differences between an aardwolf and a hyena.
Some aardwolves have been killed by vehicles. Spraying grasses with insecticides has also proved dangerous for the animals. Another threat is the loss of habitat and the removal of termite mounds to create farmland.
Fortunately, at the moment the aardwolf population isn't in trouble. The animal is not common but has a widespread distribution and seems to be doing well. The IUCN classifies the population in its "Least Concern" category with respect to the danger of extinction. Hopefully this status won't change and the aardwolf will survive for a long time to come.
"Aardwolf." Kruger National Park. http://www.krugerpark.co.za/africa_aardwolf.html (accessed August 12, 2017).
"Aardwolf." Wildscreen Arkive. http://www.arkive.org/aardwolf/proteles-cristata/ (accessed August 12, 2017).
"Proteles cristata." International Union for Conservation of Nature. http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/18372/0 (accessed August 12, 2017).
© 2011 Linda Crampton