The aardvark has a primitive ‘designed by committee’ look to it: the nose of an anteater, the ears of a donkey, the feet of a rabbit and the tail of a giant rat. But don’t be fooled: it has outlasted many other species because it does one thing supremely well. It is a termite-eating machine.
They are the only mammal species that boasts an entire order to itself. Tubulidentata means ‘tube-toothed’ and aardvark teeth are completely different to those of any other animal. They are twenty flat-topped pegs, made up of hexagonal tubes, right at the back of their mouths. Instead of enamel, they are are covered with cementum, the stuff that is normally inside teeth. Like rodents’ teeth, they never stop growing.
Aardvarks are hunted for meat and leather: aardvark is Afrikaans for ‘earth pig’ and they said to taste like gamey pork. They are also called ‘ant bears’ but their Latin name, Orycteropus afer means ‘African foot miner’. The bushmen believe that aardvarks have supernatural powers because,they are literally ‘in touch’ with the underworld.
As soon as darkness falls, the aardvark leaves its burrow and applies its snout to the ground, snuffling in huge zigzags across the savannah in search of mounds to crack open and lick clean. It can cover 30 miles and hoover up over 10 pints of termites in single evening. The aardvark nose contains more bones and scent receptors than that of any other mammal. Its ears can pick up the tiniest of underground movements and its powerful claws tear open mounds that would blunt a pick-axe. Aardvarks are strong: they can grow to the size of a rugby forward and dig a burrow faster than six men using shovels. Their thick skin protects them from termite bites and as the long, sticky tongue reels in supper, they can close their nostrils at will, to stop the insects running up inside.
Aardvarks have built up a beneficial relationship with a plant known as the ‘aardvark-cucumber’ that grows its fruits underground. Aardvarks dig them up and eat them when water is scarce then bury their seed-laden droppings, ensuring the plants’ survival. The !Kung San bushmen of the Kalahari call the fruit, ‘aardvark dung’.
Aardvarks very nearly didn’t make it into the dictionary. Aardvark, the fourth noun listed in the 1928 Oxford English Dictionary, owes its inclusion to the editor James Murray who overrode his assistant’s opinion that the word was ‘too technical’.
Who could have ever thought that such an animal could be so expressive? It's all in their eyes.