- Before: It looks like a cute hyena. But I bet it’s “well ‘ard”.
- After: It is indeed “well ‘ard”. In every possible way but violent.
Here’s the situation. You look like a small version of, and are competing with, some of the world’s biggest land predators. What do you do? Eat the food nobody else wants.
Prey still has a nasty kick though.
The most doe-eyed member of the hyena family is in a select group of 18 mammals – out of 4,060 – that only eats termites. In theory.
With its sticky tongue of unique “incisiform” papillae (read: sharp tongue nodules), it can slurp up to 30,000 a night. The insects thank it with a vicious terpene spray, bringing us to the first thing that makes the aardwolf “well ‘ard”.
Its hairless muzzle, mucousy mouth coating and penchant for swallowing without chewing help it shrug off the toxin, and bar the odd cold spell, it would pick termite juice over water any day. However, basing your diet on poison insects with low nutritional value isn’t always ideal.
Sour side order.
You can’t exactly bring thousands of angry bugs home for dinner, so while the aardwolf lives in mated pairs, it dines out alone and doesn’t bother with the nonsense of a feeding hierarchy. Soil-lapped meals also come with extra sand, which can batter its mouth and tongue.
Apart from its flashy fangs, mainly used for territory disputes or grooming, its peg-like teeth can’t really chomp on meat. So what does it do for a less abrasive, more nutritional boost?
“Well ‘ard” aardwolf reason number two: it eats scorpions and horrible hissing spiders. de Vries et al. found them in scat during the termite-heavy wet season, and given the sunspider’s painful bite, it wasn’t an accidental or desperate snack. That’s not to say it doesn’t have emergency food measures.
If you’re an aardwolf where winter is a thing, so southern rather than eastern Africa, your favourite Trinervitermes termites disappear and you have to hunt the ones that like daylight – when everyone can see you. Alternatively, you’ll have to hunker down in your den and lose up to 20% of your body mass. But it’s not all bad.
Ah, those cold winter nights.
While usually monogamous, the southern aardwolf is known for wintry extra-marital dalliances, and the evenings must fly by when you can last for four hours straight. Fortunately, it skips the usual hyena horror of a “copulatory tie”, which is a twisted, genital-locking mating position rather than a sexy bit of office wear. In fact more often than not, resembling other species gets the aardwolf into all sorts of trouble.
A sheep in wolf’s clothing…?
Often mistaken for a hyena – its name “fisi ndogo” in Kiswahili means “little spotted hyena” – the aardwolf used to be accused through the medium of guns for stealing eggs and attacking livestock. One didn’t exactly help its case when it tore up some unlucky geese one winter, but this was blamed on desperation and the “kill-crazy” switch when there’s an abundance of prey in a small space.
So it’s not too far from its predatory ancestry, it just chooses to aim the badassery at its environment, its poisonous insect prey, and dare I say it, any notion that it leaves its lovers wanting. And who can argue with that?
Latin: Proteles cristata
What? Small hyena that eats termites. Its name means “earth wolf” in Afrikaans.
Where? There’s one population in eastern Africa (central Tanzania to Somalia, then Eritrea to southeastern Egypt), and another in southern Africa (most areas except Malawi, southern Tanzania, most of Zambia and Lesotho). It prefers open grasslands and wooded savannah, although it’s also been seen in the inland gravel areas of the Namib Desert.
How big? About 40-50 cm / 16-19 inches at the shoulder, and 55-80 cm / 22-31 inches long with a tail of 20-30 cm / 8-12 inches.
Endangered? Currently listed as Least Concern.
Probable motto: Don’t worry, I only terrorise termites.
They look cute. Do they need my help at all?
Fortunately there’s less animosity between humans and aardwolves nowadays, but it’s still hit with the far deadlier poison of pest control. Habitat loss and destruction of termite mounds are also an issue, as the aardwolf’s range depends on the available crawlies.
There are no specific conservation drives for the aardwolf, but the African Conservation Trust has a variety of projects aimed at protecting biodiversity and natural resources across the continent.
Just to prove I’m not fibbing:
“Aardwolf“. No date. Siyabona Africa.
Anderson, Mark D. 2010. “Aardwolf adaptations: a review“. Transactions of the Royal Society of South Africa 59(2):99-104.
de Vries, J.L. et al. 2015. “Extension of the diet of an extreme foraging specialist, the aardwolf (Proteles cristata)“. African Zoology 46(1):194-196.
de Vries, J.L. et al. 2016. “A conservation assessment of Proteles cristata”. In Child M.F. et al., The Red List of Mammals of South Africa, Swaziland and Lesotho. South African National Biodiversity Institute and Endangered Wildlife Trust, South Africa.
Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. No date. “Aardwolf“. Britannica.com.
Hamerton Zoo Park. 2019. Personal email communication, 9th June.
Mills, Gus, and Hofer, Heribert. 1998. “Status survey and conservation action plan: hyaenas“. IUCN/SSC Hyaena Specialist Group.
National Geographic. 2016. “Meet the aardwolf: a cute animal you never knew existed“. YouTube.
“Proteles cristata“. No date. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
Yarnell, Richard W., and MacTavish, Lynne. 2013. “A novel record of aardwolf Proteles cristata feeding behaviour“. Transactions of the Royal Society of South Africa 68(1):81-82.
Featured image credit: “Aardwolf” by Binty