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Aardwolf (Proteles cristatus)

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Citation: Furstenburg, D. 2008. Aardwolf (Proteles cristatus). Game&Hunt 14(2):6-11.
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Deon Furstenburg
Proteles cristatus (Sparrman, 1783)
Afrikaans Maanhaarjakkals / Aardwolf
German Erdwolf
French Protéle
isiNdebele Inthuhu
isiXhosa Ingci
seSotho Thikhoi
seTswana Kgarangwê
Shona Mwena
Shangaan Ndloti
Venda Didingwe
Nama/Damara Gïb
Photo: Deon Furstenburg, adult aardwolf male
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IUCN Conservation Status:
Lower Risk, least concern (LR/lc).
Definitely not a jackal, as the Afrikaans name infers as 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
also run over as they scavenge along roadsides at night.
Taxonomy Kingdom: ANIMALIA
Superorder: FERAE
Family: Hyaenidae
Subfamily: Protelinae
Genus: Proteles
Species: cristatus
The aardwolf is the smallest of the four extant hyaenas
Crocuta crocuta the spotted hyaena
Hyaena brunnea the brown hyaena or “strandjut”
Hyaena hyaena the striped hyaena of north-eastern Africa
Proteles cristatus the aardwolf
The aardwolf was first described by Sparrman in 1783 from a specimen collected near the
Little Fish River in the Eastern Cape Province. He named it Viverra cristata, referring to a civet
with a mane but in 1824 it was renamed Proteles lalandii and again in 1987 as Proteles
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
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Proteles cristatus cristatus the southern aardwolf
P.c. septentrionalis the north-eastern aardwolf
The aardwolf is endemic to Africa and is distributed in two subpopulations, the first in an area
of southern Africa stretching from the Cape northwards to southern Angola and Zambia. The
second population is found in central and north-eastern Africa in Tanzania, Kenya, Somalia
and Ethiopia. The two populations are separated by a 1 500 km zone of moist environment.
During the late Pleistocene the climate in central Africa was much drier and the aardwolf’s
distribution was continuous between the two areas of the present populations and was without
subspecies. Aardwolves do not inhabit the tropics, the sandy Sahara and Namib deserts and
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montane or coastal forests. It is not found in West Africa, mainly due to the moist environment
and the absence of its primary food source.
The aardwolf is a mammalian insectivore, similar in size to a fox or sub-adult jackal. It has an
adult shoulder height of 45-50 cm, a mass of 8-10 kg and a total body length from nose-tip to
tail-end, of 85-105 cm. The body is slender with long legs and a relatively long neck. The
back slopes down from the shoulders to the hindquarters, with the head being carried at the
same height or lower than the shoulders. This gives the body an arched profile.
The aardwolf is very similar to the striped hyaena in colour and body shape, but it differs from
the other Hyaenidae in that their large front quarters do not carry the greatest part of the body
mass. Aardwolves have three vertical black stripes on the flanks of the body and 1-2 diagonal
black stripes on both the front and the hind quarters. The legs have horizontal black stripes
around the lower sections. A distinctive, continuous, long-haired mane stretches along the
spine from the top of the head to the base of the tail. The front part of the face from between
the eyes to the end of the snout is black. The rest of the body pelage is a pale, greyish yellow.
The tail is bushy, 20-30 cm long and solid black at the tip. The face and muzzle are almost
hairless, an adaptation to its highly specialized feeding behaviour, and the ears are pointed.
In contrast to those of its predecessors, the present form the aardwolf has molars of <2 mm.
These are the result of the change from a carnivorous to a soft insectivorous diet. In contrast
to other Hyaenidae species the front feet of the aardwolf are smaller despite their larger front
quarters. The Hyaenidae have only four toes on their front feet while the aardwolf has five.
The front spoor of aardwolf are smaller at 47x30 mm, than the hind at 50x30 mm. The spoor
is typical of a domestic dog with a clearly printed nail on the front of each toe. Only four toes
are imprinted on both the front and hind spoor.
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Information table
Aardwolf information table
Adult body weight kg 9 8,5
Adult shoulder height cm 48 48
Total body length
(snout to tail end)
cm 84 – 99 90 – 97
Sexual maturity age months 9 9
Social maturity age (1st mating) years 1 1
1st Litter born at age years
Gestation period days
90 – 110
Litter size number
2 – 4
Litter interval months 12
Rutting season Jun – Jul
Birth season
Sep – Nov
Weaning age months 3 – 4
Independent at age months 9 – 12
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Gender ratio: entire population (natural) 1 1
Mating ratio: adults (natural) 1 1
Cubs birth ratio 1 1
Maximum lifespan years 14 16
Social order Breeding pairs Breeding pairs
Home range ha 100 – 400 100 – 400
Territory range ha 100 – 400 100 – 400
Daily food consumption (adults) 300 000 termites per 24 hours
Maximum stocking load Determined by termite mound abundance
Minimum habitat size required 3 000 termite mounds per aardwolf pair
Annual population growth 9 18%
Aardwolf do not feature in any formal trophy registers as they are not recognized as trophy
Aardwolf trophy records
Rowland Ward (XXVII edition 2006)
Not listed as a trophy animal
Safari Club International S.C.I.
Not listed as a trophy animal
Confederation of Hunters Associations of South Africa CHASA
Not listed as a trophy animal
Habitat requirement
The aardwolf is restricted to dry savannah areas, dry grassland and semi-arid karroid shrubland
throughout its distribution range as this is where their 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 habitats with an annual rainfall of 200-600 mm with a source of
termites and patches of dry, shrubby thicket and tall grass for refuge.
Despite its solitary behaviour the aardwolf has several means of communication including a
series of displays, calls and scent marking. It has an arousing display of the mane that gives
an impression of aggression and a much larger body size, this bluff often rescuing it from
threatening situations. The common call is a high pitched whistle but growls and barks are
also heard occasionally.
Aardwolves are shy animals. Their activity usually coincides with the time that their prey are
active; in summer they are active at night when the long-nosed grass termite Trinervitermes
spp surfaces. In winter when nights are <9°C, this termite seldom surfaces and is replaced by
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the common termite Hodotermes mossambicus that surfaces in daytime. The aardwolf then
adjusts its activity to the daylight hours.
Studies in the Lichtenburg Nature Reserve have shown that an aardwolf travels 1.5-9.1 km
(average 4.2 km) per night searching for food. When roaming for food it generally travels
relatively slowly between moving columns of termites. When inactive, aardwolves rest under
thicket brush or in the abandoned burrows of springhare, porcupine or aardvark but sometimes
dig their own burrows. Burrows with more than one access are not occupied. The locality of an
aardwolf’s den is firmly imprinted into its memory and, if danger is detected, the animal will
make directly for the nearest den. During warm summer months the aardwolf rests an average
of 15 in every 24 hours and in cold winter, 19 hours.
Feeding & Nutrition
The aardwolf is a highly specialized insectivore that feeds almost exclusively on termites. The
bulk of diet consists of termites of 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 switching in diet to Hodotermes sp an aardwolf may temporarily loose up
to 20% of its body mass. This is because Hodotermes termites have fewer nutrients than
Trinervitermes termites.
When feeding on Trinervitermes, the prey is detected primarily through scent as alarmed
termite soldiers secrete a strong, sweet, oily smell. The termites are licked up by the aardwolf’s
wide spoon-like tongue but in the process a great deal of sand is swallowed, which accounts
for aardwolves dung containing up to 50% sand. This is a distinctive parameter for identifying
aardwolf when tracking by spoor and dung signs in the wild.
It is calculated that one adult aardwolf can consume up to 300 000 termites during a single
night of feeding. Aardwolves therefore play an important role in controlling termites in large
ecosystems. They are extremely cautious not to destroy a termite colony and harvest only a
part of it. This allows the colony to regenerate and ensures a food supply for the future.
Aardwolves memorise their environments, specific sources of food and termite nests, and will
frequently return to them.
Other insects, larvae, eggs and small birds and rodents are sporadically taken in addition to
their termite diet. In contrast to other Hyaenidae, aardwolves do not scavenge on dead material
and cannot kill prey larger than a mouse as they only have rudimentary teeth.
Territory & Home range
Both adult male and female aardwolf are territorial and have fixed home ranges. The entire
home range acts as the territory, and is defended against other adult members of the species.
The size of home ranges depends upon the abundance and distribution of termite mounds and
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nests. On average, a density of 3 000 mounds are required to sustain one aardwolf breeding
pair. In most arid environments the area needed for such a density varies from 1-4 km².
Territories and home ranges are scent marked with a musk-like secretion from the two anal
glands. A short-acting secretion is used for self-orientation during feeding expeditions and a
long-acting one for the marking of permanent boundaries. Although aardwolves repeatedly
visit the same latrines, they do not use it for territory and home range marking as do the spotted
and brown hyaena. Each territory contains an average of 20 latrines, an oval clearing of
approximately 1x2 m. The dung has the distinctive odour of the termite diet. Therefore most
dung is covered with sand to prevent confusion when following the scent of its prey.
Each aardwolf individual has 2-9 resting sites or dens (average 5.8) where it hides against cold
in the winter and against excessive heat in summer. A den is occupied for a maximum of 6-8
weeks before the aardwolf moves to another.
Social structure
Aardwolves are solitary animals except during the mating and breeding season when single
pairs are formed. During this time 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 male often
raises the young of another male. The young leave the parents at an age of four months and
become solitary, at which time the parent-pair also breaks up.
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The mating season lasts for two months in winter. In the Northern Cape, females normally
come into pre-oestrus during the second half of June and mate in the first half of July.
Before the mating season, adult males become increasingly aggressive and scout their
surroundings to determine the aggression of neighbouring dominant males. In this way, he
establishes, in advance, whether he will be able to dart in for a quick fraud mating once the
female comes on heat and then immediately returns to his own partner. Thus both the resident
and the intruder male can mate with the female which then has pups from different males in
one litter.
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Copulation lasts fore 1-4.5 hours and ejaculation occurs approximately every hour. During this
time the resident may be replaced by other aggressive intruder males. The female ends the
copulation when she enters the den. She remains receptive for up to 3 days but if implantation
fails, she will continue to recycle.
Gestation is 90-110 days after which time 2-4 pups, an average of 2.5, are born hopelessly
defenceless and blind. In South Africa most births occur between October and December, but
further north in the warmer climate of Botswana it can be at any time of the year. Except for 2-
3 hours before sunrise when he leaves to hunt, the male guards the litter during the day.
However, some males never protect their young. The female spends most of her time
searching for food for herself and the pups. The pups remain underground in the den for four
weeks. From an age of 12 weeks they begin to join the mother but venture no further than 500
m from the den. They continue to suckle until they are five months old and begin to feed on
termites in addition to milk, from 3.5 months. Although maturity is reached at 9 months, the
adult body mass is generally only reached at 22 months. However, exceptions of faster growth
have been recorded.
The aardwolf is prone to predation by other predators such as the leopard Panthera pardus,
the black-backed jackal Canis mesomelas and the side-striped jackal C. adustus. Little is
known about its susceptibility to disease or its survival rate. When the father assists in the
guarding of the litter the reproductive success is an average of 1.5 pups per annum, compared
to 0.5 when he does not. The estimated annual population growth is 9-18% and is comparable
to the population dynamics of similar predators.
Of great concern is the impact of the spraying of grasshopper swarms with pesticides,
especially if the spraying is more often than once every four years. Grasshopper nymphs are
a major food source and aardwolves depend on their sporadic outbreaks. If they are poisoned
it is fatal for the aardwolf.
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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.
Bothma, J du P & Nel, JAJ, 1980. Winter food and foraging behaviour of the aardwolf, Proteles cristatus, in the
Namib-Naukluft Park. Madoqua 12.
Bothma, J du P, 2001. Aardwolf. Wild & Jag 7(1).
Cooper, RL & Skinner, JD, 1979. Importance of termites in the diet of the aardwolf Proteles cristatus in South
Africa. S. Afr. J. Zool. 14.
Du Plessis, SF, 1969. The past and present geographical distribution of the Perrisodactyla and Artiodactyla in
Southern Africa. M.Sc. Thesis, University of Pretoria.
Furstenburg, D, 1970-2008. Personal field notes (unpublished).
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,
IUCN, 2006. IUCN Red list of Threatened Species, Gland, Switzerland:
Kingdon, J, 1997. The Kingdon Field Guide to African Mammals. Princeton University Press, Princeton.
Kingdon, J, 1989. East African Mammals, Vol. IIIA, Carnivores: An atlas of evolution in Africa. Academic Press,
Kruuk, H & Sands, WA, 1972. The aardwolf Proteles cristatus as predator of termites. E. Afr. Wildl. J. 10.
Nowak, R, 1991. Walker's Mammals of the World 5th edn. The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore.
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.
Skead, CJ, 1987. Historical Mammal Incidence in the Cape Vol 1 & 2, Government Printer, Cape Town.
Skinner, JD & Chimba, CT, 2005. The Mammals of the Southern African Subregion, 3rd edn. Cambridge
University Press.
Sliwa, A, 1996. A functional analysis of scent marking and mating behaviour in the aardwolf Proteles cristatus.
Ph.D. Thesis, University of Pretoria.
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Smithers, RHN, 1983. The Mammals of the Southern African Subregion, 1st edn. University of Pretoria, CTP
Book Printers, Cape Town.
Ungulates of the World, 2008.
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in the aardwolf: life history implications. Func. Ecol. 9.
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edn. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington.
Photo: D Furstenburg, adult male
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
Full-text available
1. Earlier life-history studies suggested that the mammalian iteroparous/semelparous gradient may be particularly important in shaping patterns of post-natal development in the hyaenids. Apparent anomalies between Aardwolf metabolic rates and post-natal development patterns are investigated. 2. Age-specific post-natal growth in the Aardwolf supports sexual size monomorphism in the species and no statistical difference in goodness of fit was evident among various growth curves. Nevertheless, the Gompertz equation consistently provided the better fit and is recommended. 3. Significant seasonal trends in adult body weights were evident with low weights at the end of winter (August). Seasonal adjustment of growth data failed to improve the goodness of fit of growth curves. 4. Asymptotic weight is approached by 1.8 years of age but may be reached as early as 3.6 months by some individuals. Maximum growth rate is achieved at 3 months of age. 5. The power coefficient (c) which scales growth between birth and independence is 0.61, and falls below the mean value of 0.81 for carnivores. 6. However, previous life-history analyses and the implementation of the Charnov (1991) model suggests that the Aardwolf has an above average weight and a below average age at maturity. In addition, this species reached final weight before sexual maturity, an uncharacteristic feature for mammalian species. 7. This peculiar suite of life-history characteristics suggests that the Aardwolf tends towards an iteroparous life style, which serves to reduce juvenile mortality. However, species-specific constraints do not allow it to pursue this strategy by maximizing growth rate. Instead growth is sustained using an extended lactation period and intensive parental care to enable final body size to be reached as soon as possible. 8. These results not only suggest that the adoption of a universal growth power coefficient (c) to model mammalian life histories is unrealistic but also that c should also be interpreted within the broader context of the complete suite of species specific life-history constraints and characteristics.
Full-text available
Summary in Afrikaans and English. Thesis (Ph.D. (Dierkunde)) - Universiteit van Pretoria, 1996.
Analysis of 81 faecal samples collected from seven different localities in South Africa revealed that termites are the most important food item in the diet of the aardwolf. Trinervitermes was found to be the most important genus of termite in the faeces from six of the seven localities, whilst other genera of termites, ants, other insects and millipedes mostly occurred as traces in the faeces. No vertebrate remains or traces of carrion were found.Analise van 81 mismonsters uitsewe verskillende omgewings in Suid-Afrika versamel het getoon dat termiete die belangrikste kositem in die die荤t van die aardwolf is. Trinervitermes is die belangrikste termietgenus in die mismonsters uit ses van die sewe omgewings, terwyl slegs spore van ander termietgenera, miere, ander insekte en duisendpote in die mis waargeneem is. Geen werweldier- oorblyfsels of aas is gevind nie.
This field guide begins with a checklist. The main part of the volume consists of entries for each species. Each entry provides information on common names, measurements, recognition, geographical distribution (plus map), habitat, diet, behaviour, adaptations and conservation status. Illustrations are also included. Brief notes are also provided on the African environment (physical, climate and vegetation) and palaeoecology (habitats and species). Finally a short section examines African wildlife conservation.
(1) Food selection of aardwolves was studied by a comparison of faecal contents with available termite populations. Observations are reported on the foraging behaviour, and on aspects of termite biology which expose various species to predation. (2) The aardwolf diet shows a very high selectivity for one species of termite, Trinervitermes bettonianus in the Serengeti and ecologically similar species elsewhere. (3) Both morphology and foraging behaviour are very well adapted to feeding on Trinervitermes bettonianus or similarly behaving termites. The aardwolf does not dig for food; hearing is probably an important sense used for locating prey. (4) Various aspects of the termites' protection against aardwolf predation are discussed. (5) The aardwolf diet shows an increase in variety during the rains; the cause of this is discussed. (6) Some brief notes are made about territorial behaviour, scent marking and the use of middens. (7) As a management recommendation regular grassland burning is suggested for areas where the presence of aardwolves is considered desirable.
The influence of seasonality and quality of diet on the metabolism of the aardwolf
  • M D Anderson
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.