Aardvarks are nocturnal, secretive, termite- and anteating mammals, and are one of Africa's strangest animals. Despite superficial appearances, aardvarks are not classified as true anteaters; they have no close relatives and are the only living species of the order Tubulidentata and family Orycteropodidae. Aardvarks are large piglike animals weighing from 88-143 lb (40-65 kg) and measuring nearly 6 ft (1.8 m) from nose to tip of tail. They have an arched body with a tapering piglike snout at one end and a long tapering tail at the other. Their legs are powerful and equipped with long, strong claws for digging. The first white settlers in South Africa named these peculiar animals aardvarks, which means earth pigs in Afrikaans.
Aardvarks are found throughout Africa south of the Sahara Desert. They spend the daylight hours in burrows and forage for food at night. Grunting, shuffling, and occasionally pressing their nose to the ground, aardvarks zigzag about in search of insect prey. Fleshy tentacles around the nostrils may be chemical receptors that help locate prey. Their favorite food is termites. Using their powerful limbs and claws, aardvarks tear apart concrete-hard termite mounds and lick up the inhabitants with their sticky foot-long tongue. Aardvarks also eat ants, locusts, and the fruit of wild gourds. Adapted for eating termites and ants, the teeth of aardvarks are found only in the cheeks, and have almost no enamel or roots.
Female aardvarks bear one offspring per year. A young aardvark weighs approximately 4 lb (2 kg) when born, and is moved to a new burrow by its mother about every eight days. After two weeks the young aardvark accompanies its mother as she forages, and after about six months it can dig its own burrow.
Hyenas, lions, cheetahs, wild dogs, and humans prey on aardvarks. Many Africans regard aardvark meat as a delicacy, and some parts of the animal are valued by many tribes for their supposed magical powers. If caught in the open, aardvarks leap and bound away with surprising speed; if cornered, they roll over and lash out with their clawed feet. An aardvark's best defense is digging, which it does with astonishing speed even in sun-baked, rock-hard soil. In fact, aardvarks can penetrate soft earth faster than several men digging frantically with shovels.