### Today’s post is a guest post from Lora Orme, an undergraduate conducting directed research with us at the University of Minnesota. ###
Often mistaken for a hyena, the aardwolf (whose name means “earth wolf”) of southern and eastern Africa is actually smaller and more docile than its carnivorous cousin (which belongs to a different sub-family). Both the striped and spotted hyenas primarily call large mammals “dinner,” but the aardwolf is more interested in a tasty termite column than meat. Because of its food choice, the aardwolf’s jaw is much less powerful and smaller than a hyena’s jaw, but the aardwolf has a specialized tongue that is longer and sticky. It licks up various insects (with a preference for termites) off of the ground, rocks, and trees with only minor digging with its front claws. For an aardwolf, a fully belly can mean as many as 300,000 termites! The aardwolf will memorize the locations of termite mounds to save the time and effort of finding new snack spots, and will be careful to leave enough of the population alive so that its food source will be “re-stocked.” At the end of a long night of dining on insects, the aardwolf returns home to an under-ground burrow.
At one point, the aardwolf’s burrow most likely was stolen from another small mammal such as a hare, aardvark, or porcupine. Although able to create a new burrow, it takes much less energy for the aardwolf to use a pre-existing one. The burrow provides a safe-haven in the daylight hours when the nocturnal aardwolf normally sleeps or relaxes.
Aardwolves, while primarily solitary, will coexist in groups of six to a dozen neighbor burrows. They congregate for safety in numbers (and more rarely to help rear young), but more often to find a mate. Males will seek females within their own territories and in those of neighbors, sometimes leading to male-male conflicts which are solved with barks, blunt-teeth gnashing, and musky scent-release from glands (the smell of which has been compared to a skunk).
A mating pair will form during the breeding season (spring or fall) and gestation lasts around 100 days, ending in a litter of three to five cubs. Usually birth occurs during the rainiest months of the year when termites are most available, providing plenty of nutrients for the growing young. The males contribute to the partnership by guarding the nest while the females nurse. Both parents supervise the cubs in their first foraging adventures about 3 months after birth.
Because the aardwolf acts as a control on the termite population, it often lives and scavenges near or on farms. Most farmers detest the termites that may destroy crops or infest homes, so they welcome the service of the aardwolves. Unfortunately, aardwolves are preyed upon by some larger carnivorous mammals such as the jackal. Even humans represent a threat to the species because the aardwolf is hunted for its unique fur.
Upon a closer look, aardwolves have distinctive pointed ears for acute hearing; after all, their prey is very small! The aardwolf’s paw is also distinctive from a hyena because it has five toes instead of four. The aspect you might notice first, however, is the bushy pointed tail that looks as if it has been dipped in a can of black or dark brown paint. In a confrontation, an aardwolf’s furry mane will raise from head to tail making it appear larger in size to (hopefully) persuade the opposition to back down.
See if you can spot one of these night-walkers as they prowl for termites!