My fellow ODeckers, welcome to the inaugural installation of the Wednesday Hyena series! As you know, I recently concluded my Wednesday Woof series, covering all of the wild canids that are still around, plus one extinct canid. As hyenas are not canids (they're feliforms), but are still fascinating, I wanted to take some time to write about them, too.
The Aardwolf (Proteles cristata) is a small insectivore that can be found in South and East Africa. It is one of four extant species that belongs to the Hyaenidae family. The Aardwolf is also known as the civet hyena or maanhaar jackal, and its most common name, Aardwolf, means "earth wolf" in Afrikaans. Aardwolves have five toes on their front paws and four toes on their back paws, which is why they are called Proteles - this means "complete in front."
Aardwolves closely resemble their relative, the Striped Hyena, but it is not a carnivore. Instead, they feed primarily on termites. One Aardwolf can eat up to 250,000 termites in a single night. It has a long, sticky tongue that it uses to snag and lap up the insects from the ground. Only very occasionally will they branch out of their typical insectivore diet to eat small mammals and birds, during the rainy season and the coldest parts of the winter. Though they might appear to be scavengers like their other Hyena relatives, when they are observed picking at corpses, they are actually eating the insect larvae that proliferate among the decaying matter.
Aardwolves can grow up to 31 inches (80 cm) in body length, with a 12-inch (30 cm) tail. The heaviest adults can weigh about 33 pounds (15 Kg). Southern Aarwolves are typically smaller than the ones that can be found in the east. Aardwolves live in dry plains and bushland areas, avoiding mountains and higher elevations - this is because these areas are where their main termite prey species live. They are nocturnal, spending their days in underground burrows (up to ten separate burrows per family group).
The Aardwolf is not a solitary creature, though they are shy. They live in monogamous mating pairs with their current offspring, though mating season can be complicated. During that time, unpaired Aardwolves will search their own territories and the territory of neighboring Aardwolves to find unattached females to mate with - although if they can't find single females, they will mate with the female mates of less dominant males if they can. After a 92-day gestation period, female Aardwolves will give birth to a litter of two to five cubs (average litter size is three). Both parents take part in raising the cubs, taking turns watching them while the other forages for food.
The overall population of the Aardwolf seems to be stable at this time, though they're not common throughout their range. Their population density is approximately one individual per square kilometer of range. But because of their general population health and the lack of a declining trend, they are considered to be a species of least concern by the IUCN. In some places, they are recognized by farmers to be beneficial, as they prey on termites and remove them as pests. In others, they are killed for their fur, or accidentally as a side effect of the farmers using insecticide.