Aardvarks affected by climate change

Aardvarks tragic fate point to climate change

A study published this week by Dr Benjamin Rey and his team of researchers of the Brain Function Research Group at the University of the Witwatersrand, pointed to climate change as a direct cause of aardvark population decline, in Southern Africa.

The study, undertaken in the Kalahari Desert, saw 5 aardvarks fitted with “biologgers” (miniature sensors attached to computer chips and implanted into the aardvarks by wildlife veterinarians), with the aim of studying the activity patterns and body temperatures of aardvarks living in the Kalahari.

Aardvark out looking for food. Photo credit: WITS

How does climate change affect Aardvarks?

During the study, all but one of the chipped animals – as well as other aardvarks in the area – died because of a severe drought, the worst in the area in 35 years. The cause? Starvation. With air temperatures much higher than normal and very dry soil in the area, the aardvarks weren’t affected by the heat — in fact, many had to change their nocturnal ways to feed during the day in an attempt to increase their body temperature. The greater issue was that the termites and ants that they rely on – not just for food but also for water – could’t take the heat and aridity of changing climates, either.

Aardvarks, typically nocturnal animals, usually sleep during the day in burrows that they have dug, and emerge at night, to feed on ant and termites, using their long, sticky tongues to sweep up thousands of insects. During the drought, however, the termites and ants, on which the aardvark depends for body energy, were not available. Nights in the kalahari get extremely cold – as a result, the aardvarks’ body temperatures fell precipitously at night. “The aardvarks tried to compensate by shifting their search for ants and termites from the colder night to the warmer day, so that they would not have to use energy to keep warm, but that was not enough to save their energy stores,” says Dr Robyn Hetem, a co-worker on the study. “We believe the aardvarks starved to death.”

Aardvark coming out his burrow. Photo credit: Nigel Dennis

Aardvarks are the home builders of the bush

Another concern for the researchers is that aardvarks are ecosystem engineers – their burrows are used by a variety of other animals for shelter and denning. “If the aardvark runs into trouble and dies out, then the species that depend on its burrows will also be in trouble,” said Hetem. Many species of African birds, mammals and reptiles use the burrows dug by aardvarks to escape cold and heat, to reproduce, and to avoid predators. They can’t dig these burrows themselves. Without aardvarks, they would have no refuge. With habitat loss and over-exploitation, climate change is now an additional threat to a range of species, not just the aardvark. Wild dogs, for example, reduce hunting activity as temperature increases. By 2050, the aardvark might not be the only species removed from tourist checklists.

Many species, including hyenas, use aardvark burrows as their dens.
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