Sloth versus Aardvark

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!


This famous blue character from The Pink Panter, it’s an 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.


Aardvark in burrow/ Photo: Louise Joubert


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.


Photo: African Wildlife Foundation


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.

Image: Sydney M. Stent –


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.

Unexpected skills

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.


Courage: Tracking Diaries #9

Courage: Tracking Diaries #9

I stare at the spider hanging in front of my face. It is huge, blue and black and yellow, hanging from a golden web longer than my bicycle and better constructed than my house.

It stares back at me.

The problem with getting into a staring contest with a spider is that it has four times as many eyes and none of them need to blink.

We have to get the circumference of this tree. Our newest Urban Sloth, Luiza, has made it her home for the last two days and we need data about her habitat. I am armed with a length of measuring tape and the surefire knowledge that my boss is watching and will very definitely not be amused if I chicken out now; if she has to wade through the mess of spider webs there will be swear words, the use of machetes, and possibly even sarcasm.

To be clear, I don’t have a particular problem with spiders. When I was a small child my mother tried in vain to keep me away from them, and finally had to settle for educating me about which ones were venomous (success! The arachnid in question is a golden orb spider, non-venomous) and then hoping I made good choices…I now live in a termite-ridden shack at the edge of the world and track sloths for a living, so the jury is still out on that one.

I am not so sanguine about all creepy-crawlies. Ants, for example, give me the screaming horrors. One of my top five worst jungle memories is when the army ants came for me while I was housesitting for some friends. I would have run off into the sea if I could have, but I wouldn’t abandon the pets to a fate clearly worse than death, and so instead spent the next five hours desperately defending a small circle in the middle of the floor with a broom–which was not my weapon of choice, but needs must, as they say, when you can’t get ahold of a flamethrower.

(The dog and cat—jungle veterans both—slept through the entire episode, which gives you a bit of an idea who was the one overreacting.) 

The nice thing about spiders is that, unlike ants, they don’t come in swarms. Usually. The spider in front of me hasn’t heard that she’s supposed to be a solo creature, and a dozen other webs ring Luiza’s tree, making a gauzy golden curtain of the buttressed roots. The silk of the Nephila genus is one of the strongest known natural materials, with potential applications ranging from ethically harvested silk to tissue engineering, but right now it’s mostly serving as a sloth-tracker repellent. I’m fine with one spider, but a dozen of them, each one bigger than my hand, are a bit much even for me.

“How’s it going over there?” Amelia calls from the safety of the other side of the tree, where she is anchoring one end of the measuring tape.

“Uhh,” I call back. “Almost got it.” 

I have an idea.

I pick up a stick, wrap the measuring tape around the end of it, and try to carefully pass it through the webs. It’s a bit like one of those games you’d play as a kid that is supposed to teach you fine motor skills or something, though at my age I think I’m supposed to have learned that already. Needless to say, I get the tape stuck on one of the webs, try to pull it free, disturb the webs (which sets off a chain reaction of vibrations to every connected web), and oh shoot oh shoot oh shoot the spiders are all moving! I take a hasty step back—right into a nest of ants.

If my step away from the spiders is hasty, my launch away from the ants’ nest is a strong candidate for warp speed. I stifle a shriek as my legs take it upon themselves to propel me forward without any input from my brain, which, if it had been consulted, would have said: “Watch out you dummies, there’s a giant mess of spiderwebs right in front of you!”

The spiders were probably as scared as I was because they all ran away, and I came out the other side covered in a fine film of golden web strands, and—most importantly—still clutching the measuring tape.

“Wow!” says Amelia, as she pulls the tape tight around the tree trunk. “You just went right through those webs. Weren’t you scared of all the spiders?”

“A little,” I admit. But sometimes the only way through fear is forward…

…and away from the ants.


***No spiders were harmed during the making of this Tracking Diaries. All webs were regenerated in less than 24 hours and ready to trap future sloth trackers.***


-Ames Reeder