A rare shot of an aardvark drinking, near a dam on the Timbavati Game Reserve in South Africa.

© Chad Cocking

Study busts the myth that aardvarks don’t drink

Aardvarks have a drinking problem. Scientists have struggled for years to discover how the elusive, ant-loving animals imbibe one of the most important ingredients for life in the wild: water. Now, a team of researchers thinks it has the answer.

Most scientific studies assume that aardvarks—nocturnal creatures that live in the deserts of sub-Saharan Africa—don’t drink, but instead get their water by metabolizing the mushy insides of termites, ants, and a rare type of fruit called the aardvark cucumber. That misunderstanding springs from a dearth of evidence, says Graham Kerley, a zoologist at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, and lead author of the new study. Aardvarks are intensely secretive, spending their days in burrows up to 10 meters deep. And because they lack the reflective tissue that makes many animals’ eyes shine at night, it’s hard for scientists to track them down and observe anything they’re doing. Few wild observations of drinking have resulted in the scientific myth. “The literature is quite confused,” Kerley says.

So Kerley and his team trawled through past studies and compiled multiple reports of aardvarks drinking in the wild, including four photographs and a video, the team reports this month in the African Journal of Ecology. Aardvarks were seen sipping water from several rivers, a puddle of rainwater, and the waters near a dam in South Africa. Together, Kerley hopes the observations—made by other researchers, wildlife photographers, and field rangers—put to rest the idea that aardvarks don’t drink water. 

Amelia Clark is far from surprised by the findings. The aardvarks’ drinking problem wasn’t nearly as mysterious as other scientists thought, says the wildlife biologist at the Royal Veterinary College in London. Zookeepers, for example, have long known that aardvarks drink the way other termite- and ant-eating animals do: dipping their long mouths into water. She says that the captive aardvarks are often fed a dry diet however, which is a far cry from the animal’s preferred palate for termites and ants. “Captive behavior is often a poor predictor of behavior in the wild.”

Even though the myth had already been partially shattered, Kerley’s efforts could help raise awareness of aardvarks in the wild, which are under pressure from climate change, habitat destruction, and ecosystem disruptions, says Clark, who has studied aardvark, ant-eater, and armadillo diets. “[Aardvarks are] at the bottom of the [conservation] totem pole because they aren’t keystone species like pandas or koalas that everyone thinks are cute and fuzzy,” she says.

Kerley agrees. He worries that climate change could irrevocably alter the dry areas where aardvarks now live, threatening their existence. “These systems are going to become dryer in the future and we have no idea what the implications are going to be,” he says. That could affect more than just aardvarks, because their burrows help plant growth and are used by warthogs, insects, and even humans for shelter.