The Termitenator

Isambane's Zulu namesake

June 25th of 2021

┬ęPhotography by Vaughan Jessnitz

The aardvark is a wonderfully weird yet elusive animal, with nothing quite like it on the continent. Although signs of their activity are scattered throughout the bush, from the deep excavation holes they make to their unique, three toed track, actual sightings are few and far between. Even guides spending full-time in the bush count themselves lucky to just catch a glimpse of these unique creatures!

These nocturnal animals enjoy a cuisine of ants and termites, and have special adaptations to help them with their highly specialised diet.

The first problem comes when trying to find their tiny, ground-dwelling prey. However this is easily solved with keen hearing and an incredible sense of smell. They dig small exploratory holes when they hear scurrying from underground tunnels or catch the scent of the defensive chemical used by their prey, formic acid. Once they have detected a viable food source, the real fun begins!

Using their immensely powerful front claws with their surprisingly mobile hind feet, they loosen and remove the sun-baked soil at an astonishing rate. Rightly so, they are the digging champions of the mammalian world, able to out-dig any other mammal including a human with a pick and a shovel! Now that they have access to the colony, the feeding begins.

The aardvarks tongue is the perfect tool for lapping up astonishing numbers of their prey. Their cylindrical tongue can reach lengths of 30cm in adults and is coated in thick, sticky saliva to maximise prey capture. On top of this, it is extremely flexible, allowing it to navigate the labyrinth of tunnels constructed underground. Aardvark are so efficient at what they do, that they have been recorded eating up to 50,000 ants and termites in a single night!

Even though this shy and elusive creature's presence is often missed by humans, it's ecological importance is undeniable. They are deemed 'keystone species', meaning that, without it's presence, the bushveld would drastically change. The countless burrows they create provide refuge for a multitude of animals, including warthog, hyena, mongoose and even wild dog and leopard. By churning up the soil they contribute to the ongoing cycling of nutrients and aeration of soil that is essential to bushveld ecosystems. Even their feeding habits help keep ant and termite numbers in check. So please, on your next night-drive, keep your eyes peeled for these weird and wonderful creatures, and count yourself among the lucky few who have enjoyed them in their natural habitat!

Alex Rausch