Wednesday, October 16, 2013
by Corinna of TheFrogBag
Photos courtesy of ARKIVE.ORG
The Ballad of the Earth Pig
Think of the oddest animal you can. Now cross it with something even weirder. It’s possible that after several such thought experiments you might arrive at a creature as strange as the aardvark (Orycteropus afer). Then again, you might fall short. Aardvarks are pretty darn bizarre.
The word aardvark comes from the Afrikaans and means “earthpig” although they are also called “ant bears” in other parts of Africa. They range over a large part of that continent, occurring just about everywhere aside from desert regions like the Sahara and Namib. In truth they’re not at all like pigs or bears, but are instead the only living members of order Tubulidentata, a fact that goes a long way towards explaining their uniqueness.
Weighing up to 180 pounds each, these muscular animals exist on a diet of ants and termites, mighty small prey for something so large. Yet a single aardvark can eat 50,000 individual invertebrates each night, sucking them in whole using a sticky foot-long tongue and not bothering to chew. The insects are instead crushed in the animal’s strong lower stomach. To find so many at one time they have to make short work of even the largest termite mounds, digging quickly and closing their nostrils to guard against bites.
It’s often been said that aardvarks are important members of their ecosystems, but in fact they create ecosystems. Using their long claws they burrow into the hardest ground much faster than a team of humans using shovels could. They excavate burrows and tunnel systems over 40 feet long with multiple entrances that are eventually colonized by invertebrates, reptiles, other mammals, and even birds.
To dig so well it helps to have specialized tools. The aardvark’s long claws are well suited for the task but they don’t fold up nicely as a cat’s claws do. Instead they have to walk on them, making their movements a bit awkward above ground. Since they are nocturnal the only sign seen of them is often the imprint of their long tails dragging in the dirt behind their clawprints, showing where they traveled in a zigzag pattern the night before, hunting tasty insects. And presumably not sparing a thought to how odd they seem to anyone who isn’t an aardvark.
Posted by Brizel Handcrafts on Wednesday, October 16, 2013