Aardwolf (Proteles cristatus)

Aardwolf

Proteles cristatus (Sparrman, 1783)

Photo: Deon Furstenburg

IUCN Conservation Status:

Lower Risk, least concern (LR/lc) Recent studies showed it to be an advanced, specialized form of hyaena. Farmers often accuse this harmless insectivore of being a small stock predator and exterminate it as vermin. Large numbers of aardwolves are run over as they scavenge along roadsides at night.

Afrikaans:Maanhaarjakkals/  Aardwolf
German: Erdwolf
French: Protéle
isiNdebele:
 Inthuhu
isiXhosa:
 Ingci
seSotho:
 Thikhoi
seTswana:
 Kgarangwê
Shona:
 Mwena
Shangaan:  Ndloti
Venda:
 Didingwe
Nama/Damara:
 Gïb

Taxonomy

Classification

Class:MAMMALIA
Supercohort:LAURASIATHERIA
Cohort:FERUNGULATA
Superorder:FERAE
Order:CARNIVORA (Flesh eating)
Suborder:FELIFORMIA
Family:Hyaenidae (Hyaena)
Subfamily:Protelinae
Genus:Proteles
Species:Cristatus

 

The aardwolf is the smallest of the four extant hyaenas:

  •  Crocuta crocuta the spotted hyaena
  •  Parahyaena brunnea the brown hyaena or "strandjut"
  • Hyaena hyaena the striped hyaena of north-Africa
  •  Proteles cristatus the aardwolf

It was first described by Sparrman in 1783 from a specimen collected near the Little Fish River in the Eastern Cape and named Viverra cristata, referring to a civet with a mane but in 1824 it was renamed Proteles lalandii and again in 1987 as Proteles cristatus.

An early form of the civet is believed to be the pre-ancestor of both the aardwolf and the hyaena and fossilized remains indicate that the aardwolf is older than the other extant hyaenas. The spotted hyaena split from the brown and striped hyaena 10 million years BP while the aardwolf split from its hyaena pre-ancestors much earlier at 32-15 million years BP. Pleistocene fossils from Swartkrans and Kromdraai near Krugersdorp indicate that an early form of the aardwolf, Proteles transvaalensis, had a larger body than P. cristatus. In addition it had well developed molars while those of the present aardwolf are rudimentary.

Two extant subspecies of aardwolf are recognised:

 Proteles cristatus cristatus the southern aardwolf
 P.c. septentrionalis the north-eastern aardwolf

Description

It is slender build with long legs and a relatively long neck, similar in size to a fox or sub-adult jackal, and a shoulder height of 45-50 cm. The back slopes down from the shoulders to the hindquarters, with the head being carried at the same height or lower than the shoulders, giving the body an arched profile. It is similar to the striped hyaena in colour and body shape, but it differs from the other Hyaenidae in that the large front quarters do not carry the greatest part of the body mass. Three vertical black stripes extend down the flanks of the body and 1-2 diagonal black stripes on both the front and hind quarters. The legs have horizontal black rings around the lower sections. A distinctive, continuous, long-haired mane stretches along the spine. The front of the face is black and the rest of the body a pale, greyish yellow. The tail is bushy, 20-30 cm long and solid black at the tip, and the ears are pointed. The front feet are smaller than the hind, despite the larger front quarters. The Hyaenidae have only four toes on their front feet while the aardwolf has five.

Comparison To Man

Trophy

Aardwolf do not feature in any formal trophy registers as they are not recognized as trophy animals.

Habitat requirement

Dry savannah areas, dry grassland and semi-arid karroid shrubland where the primary food source of grass termites are abundant. These termites are mostly found in degraded grassland on heavily overgrazed veld. In general, the aardwolf can adapt to almost any habitat that is not humid, montane or a sandy desert. Preference is given to an annual rainfall of 200-600 mm with a source of termites and patches of dry, shrubby thicket and tall grass for refuge.

Distribution

Feeding & Nutrition

Aardwolves are shy animals and their activity coincides with the time that their prey are active; in summer at night when the long-nosed grass termite Trinervitermes spp surfaces, and in winter in day time when common termite Hodotermes mossambicus surfaces. Studies in the Lichtenburg Nature Reserve have shown a travel distance of 1.5-9.1 km (average 4.2 km) per night. It is a highly specialized insectivore that feeds almost exclusively on termites, especially from the genus Trinervitermes. In southern Africa it is supplemented in winter by the long-nosed grass termite Hodotermes mossambicus, and in East Africa during the rainy season, with termites of the genera Odontotermes and Macrotermes.

When feeding on Trinervitermes, the prey is detected through scent as alarmed termite soldiers secrete a strong, sweet, oily smell. The termites are licked up with the wide spoon-like tongue but in the process a great deal of sand is swallowed, which accounts for the dung containing up to 50% sand. This is a distinctive parameter for identification. One adult aardwolf can consume up to 300 000 termites per night. Eextreme caution is taken not to destroy a termite colony and harvest only a part of it., allowing the colony to regenerate. Aardwolves memorise specific termite nests, and will frequently return to them. Other insects, larvae, eggs and small birds and rodents are sporadically taken. They do not scavenge on dead material and cannot kill prey larger than a mouse.

Photo: Deon Furstenburg

Social structure

They are solitary animals except during the mating and breeding season when single pairs are formed. The male temporarily shares the home range of the female but returns to his own when the breeding season is over. While pairing with one female the male may wander off and mate with the females of other pairs. This behaviour, known as fraud mating, is unique and accounts for up to 40% of matings. This means that the female has pups from different males in one litter and the male often raises the young of another. The young leave the parents at an age of four months and become solitary, at which time the parent-pair also breaks up.

Information Table

 

Aardwolf information table
Characteristic
Male
Female
Adult body weight
kg
9
8.5
Adult shoulder height
cm
48
48
Total body length (snout to tail)
cm
84-99
Expected longevity
years
14
16
Age of sexual maturity
years
9
9
Age of social adulthood (1st mating)
years
1
1
Gestation
days

90-110
1st litter born at
years

1.5
Litter size
number

2-4
Litter interval
months

12
Rutting season
June-July
Birth season

Sep-Nov
Weaning age months
3-4
Independent at age
months
9-12
Gender ratio: Natural (all ages)
1
1
Mating ratio: Natural (adults)
1
1
Re-establishment: Absolute minimum number needed
1
1
Re-establishment: Smallest viable population size
2
2
Social order
Breeding pairs
Breeding pairs
Spatial behaviour: Home range
ha
100-400
100-400
Spatial behaviour: Territory range
ha
100-400
100-400
Daily food consumption (adults)
3000 termites per 24 hours
Maximum stocking load
Determined by termite mound abundance
Minimum habitat size required
3000 termite mounds per Aardwolf pair
Annual population growth
9-18%
Optimal annual rainfall
200-600mm
Optimal vegetation structure:
Grass height:
Woody canopy cover:

0-45 cm
0-40%

Bibliography

  1. Anderson, MD, 1994. The influence of seasonality and quality of diet on the metabolism of the aardwolf, Proteles cristatus. M.Sc. Thesis, University of Pretoria.
  2. Bothma, J du P & Nel, JAJ, 1980. Winter food and foraging behaviour of the aardwolf, Proteles cristatus, in the Namib-Naukluft Park. Madoqua 12.
  3. Bothma, J du P, 2001. Aardwolf. Wild & Jag 7(1).
  4. Cooper, RL & Skinner, JD, 1979. Importance of termites in the diet of the aardwolf Proteles cristatus in South Africa. S. Afr. J. Zool. 14.
  5. Du Plessis, SF, 1969. The past and present geographical distribution of the Perrisodactyla and Artiodactyla in Southern Africa. M.Sc. Thesis, University of Pretoria.
  6. Furstenburg, D, 1970-2008. Personal field notes (unpublished).
  7. IEA (Institute of Applied Ecology), 1998. Hyaenidae. In: African Mammals Databank - A Databank for the Conservation and Management of the African Mammals Vol 1 & 2. European Commission Directorate, Bruxelles.
  8. IUCN, 2006. IUCN Red list of Threatened Species, Gland, Switzerland: http://www.iucnredlist.org/.
  9. Kingdon, J, 1997. The Kingdon Field Guide to African Mammals. Princeton University Press, Princeton.
  10. Kingdon, J, 1989. East African Mammals, Vol. IIIA, Carnivores: An atlas of evolution in Africa. Academic Press, London.
  11. Kruuk, H & Sands, WA, 1972. The aardwolf Proteles cristatus as predator of termites. E. Afr. Wildl. J. 10.
  12. Nowak, R, 1991. Walker's Mammals of the World 5th edn. The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore.
  13. Richardson, PRK, 1985. The social behaviour and ecology of the aardwolf Proteles criastatus in relation to its food resources. Ph.D. Thesis, University of Oxford.
  14. Skead, CJ, 1987. Historical Mammal Incidence in the Cape Vol 1 & 2, Government Printer, Cape Town.
  15. Skinner, JD & Chimba, CT, 2005. The Mammals of the Southern African Subregion, 3rd edn. Cambridge University Press.
  16. Sliwa, A, 1996. A functional analysis of scent marking and mating behaviour in the aardwolf Proteles cristatus. Ph.D. Thesis, University of Pretoria.
  17. Smithers, RHN, 1983. The Mammals of the Southern African Subregion, 1st edn. University of Pretoria, CTP Book Printers, Cape Town.
  18. Ungulates of the World, 2008. http://www.ultimateungulate.com Van Jaarsveld, AS, Richardson, PRK & Anderson, MD, 1995. Post-natal growth and sustained lactational effort in the aardwolf: life history implications. Func. Ecol. 9.
  19. Ward, R, 2006. Rowland Ward’s Records of Big Game, 27th edn. Rowland Ward Publications.
  20. Wikipedia Encyclopedia, 2008. Hippotraginae. http://en.wikipedia.org
  21. Wilson, DE & Reeder, DM, 1993. Mammal Species of the World: A Taxonomic and Geographic Reference, 2nd edn. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington.
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