Sloth versus Aardvark
Welcome to the latest version of “Sloths Versus”, your monthly introduction to strange creatures of all kinds, where we (virtually) travel around the world to find out that sloths are indeed one of the weirdest animals out there. In this edition we bring you… the aardvark!
The aardvark doesn’t just win at being at the head of the alphabet, it is a pretty strange creature too. Does it have anything in common with our friends the sloths? A bit, but mostly on technicalities. Read on to find out!
So are sloths and aardvarks related?
Nope, not at all! Hailing from Africa, where it is also called the “Cape anteater” or the “African ant bear”, the aardvark (Orycteropus after) eats as many termites as it does ants. Sloths live near ants and termites, as they share trees in the rainforests, but sloths ignore the bugs in favor of the leaves.
The word “aardvark” actually comes from the Afrikaans word “erdvark”, which means “ground pig” because of their burrowing habits. They aren’t pigs though. Aardvarks are in an order all by themselves, and have no close living relatives!
A family of one
Just as the sloth has only a few cousins, to whom they aren’t very related, the aardvark is also a bit of an only child. They are distantly related to elephant shrews and manatees, as they are all in the clade Afrotheria, which means “from Africa”, so that’s a lot of different mammals.
Aardvarks last had a living relative in the middle of the late Cretaceous, over 80 million years ago. That makes the two species of sloths, who had a common ancestor about 28 million years ago, look like twins! Afrotheria (which includes aardvarks) and Xenarthra (which includes sloths) diverged about 90 million years ago.
Antisocial Social Club
One thing aardvarks and sloths have in common is that they are both a bit anti-social. While sloths may share trees with other sloths without being particularly social, aardvarks only bother with other aardvarks when it’s time to mate.
Like sloths, they have only one baby at a time, so when we say they are only children, that covers both their evolutionary history AND their actual childhood!
Ants, leaves, and… cucumbers?
Sloths are strict folivores that eat only leaves, whereas aardvarks are insectivores that eat ants and termites. And when we say eat, we mean eat; they can consume as many as 50,000 bugs in one night! The sloth’s philosophy of vegetarianism might have one small thing in common with the aardvark, as for some reason the aardvark eats exactly one kind of vegetable: the cucumber.
Not just any cucumber though, a special kind called (you guessed it) the aardvark cucumber, Cucumis humifructus. The cucumber fruits underground, where it is found by burrowing aardvarks, which consume it for the water content, and spread the seeds as they pass through its digestive system.
Sloths and aardvarks don’t drink much water, so it’s a bit surprising that they are both strong swimmers! Though sloths live high in the canopy and aardvarks live in holes in the ground, they both can get out and swim across rivers when necessary, which just goes to show that there’s no real excuse not to know how to swim.
Are sloths and aardvarks endangered?
Another thing that aardvarks and brown-throated three-fingered sloths have in common is that they are both listed by the IUCN as “Least Concern”—and in both cases, that might not be true. Sloths are so hard to find and study that we don’t really know how many wild sloths there are, and populations are very probably declining. Pygmy and maned sloths are both critically endangered.
Aardvarks, likewise, are hunted by humans who like their meat but don’t like the holes they dig, and kill off their food sources with insecticides. When the humans come in, the sloths and aardvarks leave, and if we’re not careful, they soon won’t have anywhere to go.
Help advaarks and sloths!
The African Wildlife Foundation is one of a few organizations working to help conserve the aardvarks and make sure they don’t suffer from the same habitat loss that faces sloths.
If you’d like to help these weird and wonderful creatures, get in touch with conservation organizations that can tell you how! Whether they live high in the trees or burrow deep underground, wild creatures deserve us to respect their wild spaces.