What Do Aardvarks Eat? A Comprehensive Dietary Guide

Aardvark (Orycteropus afer), often found across diverse regions in open grasslands and scrublands of sub-Saharan Africa, is a creature with a snout like a pig, ears like a bunny, and a penchant for slurping up thousands of insects in a single night.

But what exactly do aardvarks eat in the wild?

Aardvarks eat mainly ants, termites, and sometimes fruits. They are nocturnal feeders, using their long, sticky tongues to capture these insects for food.

What Do Aardvarks Eat?

Overview of Aardvarks

The aardvark is a fascinating creature renowned for its robust claws and remarkably elongated tongue, both specially adapted to their unique diet. These physical characteristics have evolved over time to serve the aardvark’s food-seeking behavior, playing a crucial role in this mammal’s survival within various ecological settings.

The aardvark’s sturdy claws are designed to efficiently break into the hard earth where their primary food sources, ants and termites, reside. These powerful tools aren’t just for foraging; they also serve as a valuable deterrent against potential predators. Their long, sticky tongue, reaching an impressive 30 centimeters (12 inches) in length, is perfectly adapted to extract insects from their hidden nests.

Predominantly found in sub-Saharan Africa, aardvarks span a vast area stretching from Senegal in the west to Ethiopia in the east and as far south as South Africa. They inhabit a variety of habitats like grasslands, savannas, and some drier regions within rainforests, showcasing their impressive adaptability in the pursuit of food. Notably, their distribution closely aligns with the availability of ants and termites, their preferred insect prey.

While this nocturnal mammal’s diet is captivating in itself, it’s intricately linked to its physical characteristics and geographical distribution. The powerful claws and remarkable tongue of the aardvark exemplify nature’s remarkable ability to shape a species’ traits according to its specific dietary needs. Meanwhile, their extensive habitat range across sub-Saharan Africa underscores the aardvark’s impressive adaptability in seeking out its insect prey, regardless of the diverse environmental challenges it might encounter.

Aardvark Diet: An Overview

Shifting our focus to the aardvark’s diet, it becomes evident that the massive intake of insects isn’t simply a matter of taste but a vital necessity to fuel their active lifestyles and unique metabolic processes. These primarily insectivorous creatures, better known as antbears, consume a staggering number of insects daily to power their remarkable activities.

This dietary habit isn’t just a random choice; it’s a critical adaptive strategy. This specialized diet, rich in proteins and fats, has sculpted their evolutionary features, making them one of nature’s most efficient insect hunters. Their long, tubular snouts, powerful claws, and sticky tongues are all adaptations that have evolved over time to perfectly suit their insectivorous needs.

The aardvark’s diet can be broadly categorized into three main components:

  • Insects: Predominantly ants and termites, which form the bulk of their diet.
  • Other Invertebrates: On rare occasions, aardvarks may consume other invertebrates like beetles and spiders.
  • Fruits: Aardvarks also supplement their diet with the ‘aardvark cucumber,’ a specific kind of fruit native to their habitat.

This particular diet composition enables aardvarks to extract the maximum possible nutrition from their food while expending the least amount of energy. Their diet of insects provides them with a rich source of proteins and fats, while the occasional fruits offer necessary vitamins and hydration. The intricate balance of their diet not only ensures their survival in harsh environments but also contributes to their unique ecological role as pest controllers.

Primary Food Source: Ants and Termites

Delving into the specifics of the aardvark’s primary food source, it becomes clear that their preference for certain types of ants and termites is not arbitrary but a calculated choice driven by nutritional needs and prey vulnerability. They particularly favor ants and termites with softer exoskeletons, as these are easier to chew and digest.

The aardvark’s acute sense of smell and hearing plays a pivotal role in hunting these insects. They can detect the faint aroma of ants and termites below the surface, locating their nests, even if they are several feet underground. Their long, sticky tongues, perfect for reaching into deep termite mounds, can lap up hundreds of insects in a few minutes.

The defenses of ants and termites, such as stinging bites, are largely ineffective against aardvarks due to their tough skin and ability to quickly consume their prey, minimizing the time they are exposed to defensive actions.

Ants and termites offer a high nutritional value for aardvarks, providing essential protein and fat necessary for their survival. The nutrient breakdown of these insects matches the aardvark’s dietary requirements, reinforcing why they are the primary food source for these mammals.

SpeciesReason for Preference
AntsSofter exoskeletons, high in protein
TermitesHigh in fat, easy to locate nests
Soldier AntsIneffective defenses, high nutritional value
Worker TermitesEasy to consume, rich in essential nutrients
Queen TermitesHighest nutritional value, large size

The aardvark’s specialized diet of ants and termites is an example of successful evolutionary adaptation, with their food choices guided by instinct, necessity, and survival.

Other Components of the Aardvark Diet

Apart from their insectivorous tendencies, aardvarks also incorporate certain fruits and plants into their diet, most notably the Aardvark cucumber, which serves as a critical source of hydration and nutrition during particular seasons. This plant, scientifically known as Cucumis humifructus, is a staple in the aardvark’s diet, especially during periods of drought when water sources are scarce. Despite their name, these cucumbers are not like the ones we commonly consume. They grow underground and are distinguished by their hard texture and the unique aroma they emit when ripe, attracting aardvarks.

The diet of an aardvark is diverse and includes other plant ingredients as well. They are known to consume other fruits, roots, and tubers, depending on what’s available in their environment. As adaptable foragers, they can adjust their diet according to the seasonal availability of food resources.

Aside from their diet, aardvarks also have unique ways to keep hydrated. Here are a few:

  • Drinking: Yes, aardvarks do drink water when it is available. However, in arid regions, they rely mostly on the moisture obtained from their food.
  • Moisture-rich plants: Besides the aardvark cucumber, they can extract water from other moisture-rich plants, roots, and tubers they dig up, maintaining hydration even during dry periods.
  • Insects: The insects aardvarks eat, primarily ants and termites, are a significant source of water for them. The insects’ bodies contain water, which helps aardvarks stay hydrated.

Hunting and Feeding Behavior

In understanding the unique feeding behavior of aardvarks, it’s important to examine their nocturnal habits, efficient digging skills, and specialized sensory adaptations. The nocturnal feeding behavior of aardvarks aligns with the activity patterns of their primary prey, termites and ants, which are most active during the night. This adaptation helps aardvarks avoid competition for food resources and evade predators.

Aardvarks are renowned for their digging prowess, using their strong, shovel-like claws to excavate termite mounds and ant nests with remarkable speed and efficiency. Not only does this allow them to access an abundant food source, but it also provides an effective means of escape when threatened.

The aardvark’s sensory adaptations play a crucial role in locating food. Their elongated, sticky tongue, which can extend up to 30 cm, is adept at scooping up and lapping insects. Furthermore, they possess a keen sense of smell and hearing, which enable them to detect their prey even when it’s hidden underground.

To further illustrate the aardvark’s hunting and feeding behavior, consider the following table:

Nocturnal HabitsDigging SkillsSensory Adaptations
Aligns with prey activityEfficient excavation of termite mounds and ant nestsKeen sense of smell and hearing
Avoids competition and predatorsProvides escape mechanismSticky, elongated tongue for scooping insects

Impact of Seasonal Changes on Diet

How do seasonal changes, particularly shifts between wet and dry periods, affect the dietary habits of the aardvark? The aardvark’s diet is primarily composed of ants and termites, but these insects’ populations fluctuate with the changing seasons, impacting the availability of food for the aardvark.

During the wet season, ants and termites are plentiful. The insects’ reproductive cycles are in full swing, leading to a surge in their populations. This abundance provides the aardvark with an ample food supply, allowing it to feast on its preferred diet of insects.

However, the dry season brings about a significant change. The scarcity of water and harsh conditions lead to a decline in the insect populations. As a result, the aardvark has to adapt its diet. Instead of feasting on ants and termites, the aardvark shifts its focus towards fruits and plants, which can still be found during the dry season.

Here are some specific examples of how seasonal changes can impact ant and termite populations and, consequently, the aardvark’s diet:

  • During the dry season, many termite species go into a state of dormancy or slow down their activities, leading to a decrease in their population.
  • Certain ant species may migrate to more hospitable areas during dry periods, reducing the local food source for aardvarks.
  • Fruits and plants that aardvarks resort to during dry periods may also be subject to seasonal variations, further influencing their dietary choices.

Challenges and Threats to Aardvark Diet

While the effects of seasonal changes on aardvark’s diet are significant, the threats posed by habitat destruction and climate change, as well as competition from other species, present additional challenges.

Habitat destruction, mainly caused by human activities such as deforestation and urbanization, significantly reduces the availability of ants and termites, the primary food source for aardvarks. For instance, the clearing of savannahs for agricultural purposes removes termite mounds that aardvarks rely on.

Climate change also imposes a substantial threat. Changes in temperature and precipitation patterns may affect the populations of ants and termites across different regions. In areas experiencing hotter and drier conditions, the number of these insects may diminish, causing a shortage of food for aardvarks.

Moreover, aardvarks face competition from other species that share similar diets. Species such as pangolins and honey badgers also consume ants and termites, adding to the pressure on the aardvark’s food supply.

This table provides a succinct summary of the threats and challenges to the aardvark’s diet:

ThreatImpact on Aardvark’s DietExample
Habitat DestructionReduces availability of foodClearing of savannahs
Climate ChangeChanges in insect populationsHotter, drier conditions
CompetitionLimited food supplyPangolins, honey badgers

Understanding these challenges is crucial in devising strategies to protect aardvarks and sustain their food sources. However, this discussion would not be complete without addressing the ongoing conservation efforts, which will be the focus of the next section.

Conservation Efforts

Efforts are underway to conserve aardvark habitats, a measure that directly benefits their dietary needs by preserving the populations of ants and termites. These initiatives, largely spearheaded by conservation organizations and local communities, aim to mitigate the impacts of habitat destruction and climate change on aardvarks.

Conservation efforts extend beyond preserving physical habitats. They also encompass research endeavors focused on understanding the dietary habits and behaviors of aardvarks. This information is crucial in formulating effective conservation strategies. By studying the aardvark’s diet, researchers can gain insights into the species’ feeding patterns, the types of ant and termite species they prefer, and how changes in these insect populations might affect aardvarks. This knowledge can then guide efforts to create and maintain environments that support both aardvarks and their prey.

Conservation initiatives related to aardvarks typically involve the following:

  • Habitat preservation: This involves protecting the areas where aardvarks live from deforestation, agriculture, and urban development.
  • Research and monitoring: Scientists study aardvarks’ diet, behavior, and overall health to understand their needs and identify potential threats.
  • Community engagement: Local communities are educated about the importance of aardvarks in the ecosystem and how they can help protect them.

These concerted efforts are necessary to ensure the survival of aardvarks and the continuation of their role as natural pest controllers. By preserving aardvark habitats and understanding their dietary needs, we can secure a future for these unique creatures and the ecosystems they inhabit.


In conclusion, the aardvark’s diet primarily consists of ants and termites, supplemented by other insects and fruits. Seasonal changes significantly affect their feeding habits, mandating dietary adjustments.

Human activities threaten their food sources considerably, warranting conservation efforts. Therefore, understanding the aardvark’s diet and its challenges is crucial to formulating effective conservation strategies, ensuring these intriguing creatures remain vital in the ecosystem.