To celebrate National Aardvark Day 2016, we descended into the Aardvark burrow at Colchester Zoo and met AJ, Skyla, OQ and Puq, the family of four sleepy aardvarks who live there. When we named our company back in 2014, we didn’t know much about aardvarks and probably couldn’t have picked one out in a lineup with tapirs and anteaters. But specialist aardvark keeper Will told us all we needed to know about these curious nocturnal creatures…
When we arrived, all four aardvarks were asleep in what can only be described as a heap. The aardvark burrow, which of course is man made, was warm and dark on the inside, and had a large sandy area outside that they can play in during the night. Aardvarks eat 30,000+ termites a night in the wild, but as it would be a bit tricky for the zoo to provide 120k termites a night, they feast here on a sort of liquidised termite consommé. It smells ludicrous but is available to visitors as a starter in the Penguinis cafe for a very reasonable £5.99 including a freshly baked crusty roll (not really!). So what else did we learn?
1. Its really hard to sex an aardvark
Male and female aardvarks are very hard to tell apart, which makes them difficult to breed in captivity. There have been several cases where zookeepers have found after several years that they were trying to breed two male or two female aardvarks together. Its so hard to tell that they have to send away hair samples for DNA testing.
Aardvarks are solid. They weigh around 50kg and are incredibly sturdy. When you stroke them, they don’t feel soft like a cat or a dog. They feel like you wouldn’t be able to pick one up or even push it out the way – more like a pig or a cow!
They may sleep all day, but as soon as the sun goes down, aardvarks start digging. Their sharp claws and tractor-like body mass means they can dig a metre of tunnel in about 5 minutes. If they get into danger they have 2 tricks – they run in a zig-zag fashion or they literally dig their way out of the problem. This is challenging for the zoo – they have to make their enclosure very strong. They can even dig through concrete, so the aardvark burrow is made of wire mesh and fibreglass. Something to think about if you are planning to keep one as a pet!
The thing that most surprised us was how tame and approachable the aardvarks were. Given that we turned up in their house in the middle of their sleeping time, they were very happy for us to stroke them, tickle their ears and noses, inspect their toes (the front feet have four toes, but the rear feet have five) and generally bother them for a bit. Two of them didn’t even wake up, and the other two came and gave us a whiffle and one even demonstrated her 30cm curly tongue (perfect for sticking bravely into termite hills). I’ve never even known household pets to be this relaxed about all the attention.
Aardvarks lead such a solitary lifestyle in the wild that it is hard to make any accurate estimate of their numbers. They inhabit a vast area of sub-Saharan Africa, and they are hard to keep track of because they hang out on their own and only come out at night. But in the zoo, they live literally on top of each other. After the waking aardvark had finished sniffing us, she almost dug her way back into the pile of sleeping aardvarks. But they didn’t seem to mind her barging them out of the way in a fairly heavy-handed fashion.
We loved our National Aardvark Day trip to meet some real life aardvarks and find out more about them. We hope you enjoyed reading about it. You too can have a hands on meeting with these and many other animals at Colchester Zoo. Just visit their website: www.colchester-zoo.com/experiences/keeper-shadowing