The aardwolf (Proteles cristata), distinct from other hyenas, is an insectivorous mammal and is native to South and Eastern Africa. Its Afrikaans and Dutch name means earth-wolf, and also called maanhaar-jackal by Afrikaans, which means mane-jackal.
The aardwolf is called |gīb by the Nama people, and other names include termite-eating hyena, ant hyena, and civet hyena.
The name civet hyena is based on the fact that it secretes substances from its anal gland, a trait shared with the African civet. The aardwolf is categorized in the same family as the hyena.
The minimum number of termites consumed by the aardwolf in a single night is 30,000, and the maximum is 250,000. The aardwolf has a long, sticky tongue to lick up the termites. The aardwolf tongue has adapted to withstand the termite bites.
The aardwolf lives in the shrublands of southern and eastern Africa; open lands covered in shrubs and stunted trees. It is a typical nocturnal animal that rests in burrows during the day and emerges at night to search for food.
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The aardwolf has a built that resembles a very thin striped hyena, but with black vertical stripes on a coat of yellowish fur, and more slender muzzle.
It has a mane that runs down to the center of the neck and back. The aardwolf also has one or two diagonal stripes that run down the hind and forequarter, along with several stripes on its leg.
The mane rises during confrontations to make the aardwolf look larger, and it also misses the throat spot that other members of the family have. The lower part of its leg (from the knee down) is all black, and its tail has a black tip
The aardwolf is about 22 – 31 in (55 – 80 cm) long, excluding its bushy tail, which is 7.9 – 11.8 in (20 – 30 cm long. The aardwolf stands at 16 – 20 in (40 – 50 cm) tall at the shoulder.
An average adult aardwolf weighs approximately 15 to 22 lb (7 to 10 kg) and sometimes reaching 33 lb (15 kg). Aardwolves in the southern part of the continent tend to be smaller (about 22 lb (10 kg)) than the eastern version (around 31 lb (14 kg)).
Unlike the other four-toed hyenas, the aardwolf forelegs have five toes each. The skull and teeth are similar to that of other hyenas, though it is smaller and its cheek teeth are specialized for eating insects.
Distinct from other hyenas, it has canines but is rarely used for defense and fighting. Their large ears are very similar to that of a striped hyena. As the aardwolf ages, the more it will lose its teeth. This is true, but this has little to no impact on its feeding habits due to the softness of the insects.
Habitat and distribution
Aardwolves live in open, bushland, and dry plains, avoiding mountain areas. They are found in areas where termites belonging to the family Hodotermitidae occur, and this is due to their specific food requirements.
Termites of this family depend on withered and dead grass and can be found mostly in heavily graved savannahs, grasslands, and farmland. Aardwolves spend most of the year in shared territories, which may consist of more than a dozen dens and occupied for six weeks at a time.
There are two different populations; one in Northeast & East Africa and the other in Southern Africa. The aardwolf cannot be found in the intermediary miombo forests. The territory occupied by an adult pair and their most recent offspring is 0.39 to 1.54 sq mi (1 to 4 km2).
Aardwolves are shy animals and also nocturnal, sleeping in burrows by day. Occasionally, they become diurnal feeders during the winter, and this happens during the coldest period as they stay in at night to conserve heat.
The aardwolf is often mistaken for solitary animals, but its truth is that they live as monogamous pairs with their young. If their territory is encroached on, they will chase the intruder up to 1,300 ft (400 m) or the border.
In rare cases where the intruder is caught, a fight occurs, accompanied by hoarse barking, soft clucking, and a type of roar. During the mating season, several incursions occur, and they occur once or twice per week.
When food scarcity occurs, the stringent territorial system may be abandoned, and other pairs (as many as three) may occupy a single territory.
The marking of the territory is done by both sexes, as they both have developed anal glands that secrete a black substance that is smeared on grass stalks and rocks in 0.20 in (5 mm) long streaks. Aardwolves also have scent glands on their penile pad and forefoot. They frequently mark termite mounds within their territory.
The marking frequency increases drastically to once every 160 ft (50 m) if they frequently patrol their territorial boundaries. The rate at which an individual aardwolf may mark is 60 marks per hour and 200 per night.
An aardwolf pair may have multiple dens and numerous feaces middens within their territory. They dig small holes to deposit their excreta at their middens and cover it with sand.
Their dens are usually abandoned springhare, aardvark, or porcupine dens, and in rare cases, crevices in rocks. They enlarge dens started by springhares or dig their den.
They usually use one or two dens at a time, rotating it every six months. During the summer, they may sleep underground during the heat of the day and rest outside their den at night.
Aardwolves are not adept at fighting off predators and are not fast runners. Therefore, the aardwolf may attempt to mislead its foe when threatened by doubling back on its tracks.
When confronted, the aardwolf may raise its mane to appear more menacing and secrete a foul-smelling liquid from its anal glands.
The aardwolf diet is made up of termites, most especially Trinervitermes. The aardwolf feed on the various species under the genus Trinervitermes. In central Africa, they eat Trinervitermes rhodesiensis, in East Africa, they eat Trinervitermes bettonianus, and in southern Africa, they eat T. trinervoides.
Similar to the aardvark, they lick the termites off the ground. They locate their food by the scent secreted by soldier termites and also by sound. They do not consume the entire colony or destroy the termite mound to ensure that the termites reproduce and provide a continuous supply of food. They frequently memorise the location of the nests and return to them every few months.
In some rare cases, at the beginning of the rainy season or during the cold midwinter, when the primary termites become scarce, the two populations of aardwolves look for an alternative.
The southern aardwolf seeks out the Hodotermes mossambicus (a type of harvester termite). The harvester termites are mostly active in the afternoon, explaining the diurnal behavior of aardwolves in the winter.
The eastern aardwolf survives on the termites from the genera Macrotermes and Odontotermes. They are also known to feed on larvae, other insects, and eggs. Some sources claim that the aardwolf prey on small birds and mammals.
Distinct from other hyenas, the aardwolves do not kill large animals or scavenge. Aardwolves do not eat carrion, and if they are seen eating while squinting over a dead carcass, they are actually eating beetles and larvae. Some sources claim that aardwolves do not eat meat unless it is cooked or finely ground.
The primary prey, Trinervitermes, forages in small but dense patches of 9.8 to 39.4 in (25 to 100 cm). At the same time, aardwolf foraging may cover about 0.62 mi (1 km) per hour, which translates to 5.0 to 7.5 mi (8 to 12 km) per summer night and 1.9 to 5.0 mi (3 to 8 km) per winter night.
The breeding season depends on the location but normally occur during spring or autumn. Breeding in South Africa occurs in early July. During the breeding season, single males search for their territory and a female to mate with.
The conflict between rival males may be the result of the opportunistic schemes made by the dominant male to mate with females of less dominant aardwolves. When given the opportunity, females will mate will dominant males to increase the chance of the dominant male protecting “his” cubs with her. Copulation may last between 1 to 4.5 hours.
Gestation lasts for 89 to 92 days, producing 2 – 5 cubs (but mostly 2 or 3) during the rainy season (November to December) when termite are most active. The cubs are born with their eyes open but are initially helpless. They weigh around 7.1 to 12.3 oz (200 to 350 g).
The first 6 – 8 weeks are spent in the den with their parents. The male spends up to six hours a night watching the cubs while the female looks for food. They become independent at four months but share a den with their mother till the next breeding season.
Aardwolves are said to have achieved sexual maturity at one and a half or two years of age. The average lifespan of an aardwolf in the wild is between 8 – 10 years, and are also known to live up to 15 years in captivity.