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Aardwolf Facts: A Unique Hyena Relative That Eats Termites

Linda Crampton is a writer and former science teacher with an honors degree in biology. She enjoys writing about nature and science.

Two aardwolves photographed at the Rare Species Conservation Centre in Kent, England

Two aardwolves photographed at the Rare Species Conservation Centre in Kent, England

Interesting and Unusual Animals

Aardwolves are members of the hyena family and live in Eastern and Southern Africa. They look somewhat like small, striped hyenas. In Afrikaans (a language spoken in South Africa), the word aardwolf means “earth wolf”. The name refers to the animal’s habit of spending the day in an underground burrow. Its diet consists almost entirely of termites, which it catches at night with its long and 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

Biological Classification of Aardwolves

The aardwolf is classified as follows:

  • Kingdom Animalia
  • Class Mammalia
  • Order Carnivora
  • Family Hyaenidae
  • Subfamily Protelinae

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, or the Hyaenidae, but in a different subfamily. They are sometimes referred to as a type of hyena instead of a hyena relative.

Distribution and Habitat

Aardwolves live in two separate areas in Africa. One population lives in Southern Africa and another in Eastern and Northeastern Africa. Most scientists consider these populations to be different subspecies. The southern animals are classified as Proteles cristata cristata and the eastern ones 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.

Physical Characteristics of an Aardwolf

The aardwolf has an interesting and attractive appearance. It has yellow or reddish-brown fur and black stripes on its sides and legs. Some animals have darker coloration than others. The animal's 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 often 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.

The aardwolf is a small animal. Adults 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). Males and females have the same size and appearance. The animals are noticeably smaller than hyenas.

Aardwolf Diet and Hunting Method

An aardwolf feeds mainly on termites belonging to the genus Trinervitermes, which belongs to the family Termitidae. The termite soldiers produce toxins called terpenes, but these don't harm the aardwolf. The animal locates the insects by smell and sound when they are out of their mounds and moving through the grass. It has an excellent sense of hearing.

In winter or during the rainy season (depending on the part of Africa where it lives), the aardwolf supplements its diet with termites in the family Hodotermitidae. According to some researchers, this family forms the main part of the animal's diet instead of merely a supplemental one. More research is needed to clarify the situation. The aardwolf also eats other types of termites and 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.

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.

Read More From Owlcation

Aardwolves are sometimes said to eat carrion (decaying animal bodies), but this may a false assumption. Some researchers have discovered that when the animal appears to be feeding on a carcass, it's actually eating beetles and insect larvae in the dead body.

Daily Behaviour and Vocalizations

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.

Aardwolves are largely independent of water (except during prolonged cold spells), satisfying their moisture requirements from termites.

— IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature)

Reproduction of the Species

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 the first half of July, at least in the southern part of the animal's range.

The 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.

Cub Development

The cubs emerge from the den about one month after their birth, but they still suckle from their mother at this time. 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 find food 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.

A close-up photo of an aardwolf in a zoo

A close-up photo of an aardwolf in a zoo

Threats to the Population

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 as the animals cross roads. Spraying areas with insecticides is potentially dangerous for the animals. Researchers suspect that poison used to kill locusts may be affecting them. Another potential threat is the removal of termite mounds to create farmland. Some farmers use a plough to destroy the mounds, and some use poison to kill the termites. Loss of the aardwolf's habitat as humans convert it to agricultural land or space for dwellings and businesses may be harming its population.

Population Status of the Animal

Fortunately, at the moment the aardwolf population doesn't seem to be in trouble, despite the potential threats. 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 and also says that the population is stable. This conclusion is based on a 2014 assessment. Hopefully, the status of the species is still accurate and the aardwolf will survive for a long time to come. It's an interesting and distinctive species.

References

  • Aardwolf information from the Kruger National Park
  • Facts about Proteles cristata from the Encyclopedia of Life (EOL)
  • Aardwolf entry at the Encyclopedia Britannica
  • Proteles cristata entry on the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List
  • Information about Proteles cristata in South Africa from the country's Endangered Wildlife Trust (PDF document)

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2011 Linda Crampton

Comments

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on October 09, 2013:

Thank you very much for the comment, Mike Robbers. It's nice to meet you!

Mike Robbers from London on October 09, 2013:

Great introduction to Aardwolf. Hadn't heard about that animal and at first glance I mistook it for a hyena until I read about the termites diet. Thank you for this informative and interesting hub!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on September 20, 2011:

Hi, Whimsical Chair. Researchers say that aardwolves growl and bark, and they may also occasionally make a clicking or clucking sound, but they are less vocal than hyenas and don't cackle.

Whimsical Chair on September 20, 2011:

I've also never heard of aardwolves before. Do they cackle like hyenas?

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on September 18, 2011:

Thanks for the visit, Nell. Yes, aardwolves are very small compared to hyenas. I enjoy learning about both animals.

Nell Rose from England on September 18, 2011:

Hi, I must admit if I saw it on tv I would presume that it was a hyena, it was only when you explained how different it was, and then I watched the video and saw how small the animal was that I realised the difference, well I never! lol you learn something new everyday! cheers nell

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on September 16, 2011:

Thank you for the vote, Movie Master. I agree - the aardwolf is a beautiful animal! I'd love to see an aardwolf in the wild.

Movie Master from United Kingdom on September 16, 2011:

Hi Alicia, the markings on the Aardwolf's coat are quite beautiful.

This is an animal I knew very little about, so I have learnt quite a bit!

A great informative hub, voting up!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on September 16, 2011:

Hi, Prasetio. I'm looking forward to reading your hub about ants! Thanks for the visit.

prasetio30 from malang-indonesia on September 16, 2011:

Nice review about this animal. I had never knew about Aardwolves before. Thanks for share with us. I also enjoy the video above. I had wrote about ant, if you don't mind you can visit my hub. Well done, Alicia. My vote always for you. Cheers....

Prasetio

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on September 15, 2011:

Thank you very much for the comment and the vote, Seeker7. Aardwolves are interesting animals. I don't think that many people know about them!

Helen Murphy Howell from Fife, Scotland on September 15, 2011:

This is a fascinating and beautiful hub about the Aardwolf. I had heard of them but knew very little about them, so this hub was a great source of new information. Many thanks for sharing. Voted up!

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