What eats termites, smears its butt-juice on things, and defends itself with the power of floof?
We’ve gotta talk about the aardwolf (Proteles cristata).
(Photo by Greg Hume.)
I think many of my followers are well-versed in Carnivora and know exactly what an aardwolf is, but if you don’t, let me break it down: that thing above is a species of hyena. Like your better-known spotted hyena, or the more frequently-forgotten brown hyena and striped hyena.
The aardwolf is the littlest hyena species at about 20 pounds (10 kg). They are actually quite distantly related to the other living hyena species, evidenced by a number of things but especially the fact that they have five toes. All other living hyena species have four.
Hyenas were kind of a BIG DEAL in the Miocene, but the canine and feline predators have mostly taken over in modern times. This is also a good time to remind everybody that hyenas are feliforms, not caniforms, and are much more closely related to felines than canines.
But back to ancient hyenas, we can understand the aardwolf’s weird lifestyle a little better if we understand what the earliest hyenas looked like and did. Hyenas branched out of viverrid-like ancestors. The aardwolf likely looks much like those earliest, viverrid-like hyenas did. In fact, like the aardwolf, the earliest hyenas were probably insectivorous.
Despite the fact that the aardwolf is insectivorous, however, it actually comes from the meat-eating “dog-like” hyena lineage- all the other members have since died out. The aardwolf’s ancestors actually gone BACK to an insectivorous lifestyle after a brief few million year stint as carnivores, as proof that evolution doesn’t know where the hell it’s going most of the time.
The theory for this is that it basically got too crowded in the meat-eating pool at the time, and there were a lot of free termites hanging around.
Termites! Have I mentioned termites? Because man, is the aardwolf ever a big fan of termites. Look at these delicious little golden nuggets and tell me you wouldn’t want to almost entirely subsist on them.
(Photo by Gavin Evans.)
Termites are so tasty that the aardwolf shares a niche with three other mammalian African insectivores from entirely different families: the aardvark, the pangolin, and the bat-eared fox.
The bat-eared fox joins the aardwolf in that special group of animals that used to be carnivores until they decided that standing in front of a hole with your mouth open is a pretty good way to make a living.
I jest. The aardwolf doesn’t stand in front of a hole with its mouth open. It stands in front of a hole with its tongue sticking out.
Well, to be precise, it licks up termites with that long, sticky, bristly tongue. That’s what it does all day- er, night, considering the fact that both termites and aardwolf are nocturnal creatures.
And literally, that’s all it does. Do you think the aardwolf bothers digging open termite mounds? Nope, just keeps lick-licking away on the surface. Do you think it tries to find other sources of food on cold nights when termites are inactive? Nope, just loses 20% of its body weight in the winter. Whatever.
It IS impressive that aardwolves can consume about 300,000 termites in a single night, but then again they don’t really have a choice. That’s the problem with being a 20-pound insectivore: that’s a lot of pounds to fuel with food items less than a centimeter long.
Deciding to subsist off of teeny termites does mean a few sacrifices have to be made. Like teeth. The aardwolf’s teeth tend to just… fall out. But that’s ok! You don’t really need teeth when your diet is tiny squidgy insects.
Of course, lack of teeth does tend to make it hard to defend yourselves against predators. I mean, it’s not like there are many of THOSE in Africa.
The aardwolf is also not such a spectacular runner. Because look, we’ve already discussed what it’s fueled by. It’s just not gonna win any marathons.
So, ok, it can’t fight and it can’t run. What is the aardwolf’s greatest defensive technique? Raising that shaggy mane.
(Photo by Trisha Shears.)
Yes, that’s right. The aardwolf hopes to intimidate lions, leopards, jackals, and all the et cetera by raising it’s glorious, glorious banner of a mane.
Barring the mane defense, the aardwolf also hopes to avoid a painful and humiliating death by spending the vast majority of the daytime in dark holes.
And surprisingly, they do pretty well for themselves. They’re not endangered or anything.
But they do have to come out of the holes sometimes, to keep the line of floofy termite-eating weirdos going strong. And, though the aardwolf appears to all intents and purposes be a solitary animal- after all, it’s always alone when you see it out lickin’ up termites- it is actually a social species. To an extent.
Aardwolves are socially monogamous and live in small groups with their subadult young. They stay together in dens during the daytime, but disperse when feeding. Because again, termites. Not exactly a pack-hunting effort.
Because their prey is termites, which occur mainly in one area around large centralized mounds, aardwolves are rather territorial animals. If they’ve got a good mound, they’ll defend it against other little family groups of aardwolves. This can be done with the aforementioned floof defense and a bit of chasing and nipping, but the aardwolves also have a lovely method of marking what’s theirs as theirs.
It’s called ‘pasting.’
Basically, the aardwolf inverts its anal glands to smear sticky, smelly ‘paste’ (sometimes also known as ‘hyena butter,’ goodnight ladies) in stripes and on tall grass all around its territory. Personally, it would be an effective tactic for keeping ME away, but I’m not an enemy aardwolf hungry for some sweet, sweet T. bettonianus.
Again, aardwolves are not closely related to canines, so they don’t mark with their pee. Actually, they bury both feces and urine in communal latrines, like cats. The butt-sludge is what’s important for sending a message.
So, ok, I said earlier that aardwolves were socially monogamous. That doesn’t mean that they’re sexually monogamous. And in fact, they are not. While pairs do tend to stay together in the same dens, there is a whole lot of traveling done between dens in the dark of the night. One study observed that a whopping 62% of copulations were not between mated pairs.
Despite this, female aardwolves have a bit of incentive to have their mates as the fathers of their offspring (or to at least make them THINK that they are). A male that suspects that a bit of cheating’s gone one may leave the den for good. That’s bad news for the female and her cubs- cubs are three times more likely to survive if the father stays and guards the den from predators like jackals.
But, then again, a lady’s gotta have her fun, and particularly the interesting genetic material she can only find elsewhere. So there’s a compromise: within the aardwolf’s litter of 2-4 cubs, one or more are likely fathered by the resident male. And that’s as good as he’s probably going to get it.
So that is a basic rundown of the aardwolf. A true weirdo in a hyena family that’s already extremely weird. I think that’s real special.
A video of an aardwolf and a keeper at the Cincinatti Zoo, to make you understand how truly teeny they are.
The Hyaena Specialist Group has a whole lot of information on aardwolves and their brethren.
Richardson, P. R. K., & Coetzee, M. (1988). Mate desertion in response to female promiscuity in the socially monogamous aardwolf, Proteles cristatus.South African Journal of Zoology, 23(4), 306-308.
Richardson, P. R. K. (1985). The social behaviour and ecology of the aardwolf, Proteles cristatus (Sparrman, 1783) in relation to its food resources (Doctoral dissertation, University of Oxford).
Sliwa, A. (1996). A functional analysis of scent marking and mating behaviour in the aardwolf (Doctoral dissertation, University of Pretoria).