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There may be no other safari species that provokes quite as many double-takes as the African aardwolf. Those African Safari travellers that have been lucky enough to catch a glimpse of one of these shy animals have typically found themselves bewilderedly zooming in with telephoto lenses and binoculars—only to remain mystified. Is it some sort of tiger-striped, fluffy-tailed fox? A miniature, bat-eared zebra?
In fact, the marvelously mashed-up looking aardwolf is the smallest and most unusual member of the hyena family. Though numerous in both Southern and Eastern Africa, aardwolves (whose name means “earth wolf” in Afrikaans) aren’t commonly seen on safari—but they’re well worth keeping an eye out for. Here are some reasons why.
In almost every way, aardwolves are completely distinct from their more typically-seen cousins, spotted and brown hyenas. The most obvious differences are physical. Aardwolves are, for starters, less than half the size of other hyenas; weighing between 15-26 pounds, they have about the same stature as red foxes. (In comparison, brown hyenas, which average around 90 pounds, and spotted hyenas, which are well over 100, are larger than most timber wolves.) Their snouts and limbs are delicate, as opposed to blunt and powerful; their buff-coloured coats are patterned with dramatic stripes; and their shaggy manes extend into stiff black crests that run, Mohawk-like, down the length of their bodies.
Unusual-looking though they are, aardwolves’ physical characteristics only hint at what really distinguishes them from their brethren: They are the only hyenas that eat insects rather than meat. While their relatives’ hulking shoulders and ferocious jaws have equipped them for tearing the flesh and pulverizing the bones of prey animals, aardwolves’ slender muzzles and fine-boned physiques evolved to help them find and eat their favorite food: termites. The slash-like markings on their coats help aardwolves to blend in with the dry grasses where these insects build their mounds; their large ears help them home in on rustling termite colonies; and their long, sticky tongues (more like anteaters’ than other hyenas’) let them lap up as many as 200,000 termites in a single feeding.
Their unique eating habits also mean aardwolves behave very differently than other hyenas. Since the termites they eat are most active at night, aardwolves are almost exclusively nocturnal (which is many safari-goers see them on night game drives). They’re also solitary; apart from their mates and pups, they don’t den, feed, or hunt with other aardwolves. (In contrast, spotted hyenas can live in “clans” of as many as 80.) And unlike the fierce aggressiveness other hyenas are known for, aardwolves mainly exhibit a timid reserve. They might bark softly, but they never “laugh.” When threatened by a larger animal, the extent of their defense is to raise their bristly mane and crest to make themselves look bigger—usually right before running away.
Since aardwolves don’t have specialized digging claws like many other insect eaters, they’re not excavators. Their preferred feeding method is to nudge and poke at a termite mound so the insects swarm, and then simply lick them up from the surface of the ground. They have a similarly low-impact approach to homemaking: rather than digging a den of their own, an aardwolf family usually moves into a burrow that’s been abandoned by a porcupine, springhare or aardvark. As a result, aardwolves have what is considered a positive effect on their ecosystem; they help control the termite population on the savanna, but without damaging the landscape in any way.
Aardwolves are plentiful in both East and southern Africa. Among the preserves where they are spotted are Tanzania’s Ngorongoro Conservation Area; Namibia’s Etosha National Park; and South Africa’s Kruger National Park. While aardwolves are most typically seen on safari night drives, during colder-weather months (October to April) they sometimes forage in the afternoons.
To learn more about the fascinating African aardwolf—and try spotting one yourself—contact one of Micato’s safari experts.