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How will climate change affect elusive aardvarks? 

In an effort to understand the ecological impact of climate change on aardvarks, researchers from Oregon State University embarked on a unique study in sub-Saharan Africa.

The goal was to collect and analyze aardvark feces, providing insights into the species’ adaptation and survival in a changing environment.

Focus of the study

“Everyone had heard of aardvarks and they are considered very ecologically important but there has been little study of them,” said wildlife biologist Clint Epps, who led the study with wildlife geneticist Rachel Crowhurst. “We wanted to see if we could collect enough data to begin to understand them.”

Epps had previously acquired skills in identifying aardvark tracks and feces during postdoctoral research in Tanzania. For the current study, the team collected 253 fecal samples, of which 104 were used for genetic analysis.

“During times of rapid environmental change, evaluating and describing changes in the landscape where a species lives is important for informed conservation and management decisions,” said Crowhurst.

Elusive aardvarks 

Aardvarks are nocturnal and burrowing mammals that weigh up to 180 pounds and are distinct in their ecology. With long snouts and claws used for digging out ant and termite hills, aardvarks are the sole members of the order Tubulidentata, distantly related to golden moles, elephants, and manatees. 

Despite being categorized as “least concern” by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, the actual distribution and population trends of aardvarks remain largely unknown. This lack of knowledge is attributed to their nocturnal habits, low population densities, and expansive, often remote habitats.

Aardvarks are understudied animals

“I wanted to work on a system that was understudied, where anything I learned would likely be truly new information to the scientific community,” said Epps. “I also wanted to work over large landscapes, on foot, alone or with a friend or with guards when needed, in protected areas, with minimal logistical support and little cost.”

By analyzing the genetic data from the fecal samples, the researchers inferred the distribution and range of aardvark movements. For instance, they could identify if fecal samples from different locations belonged to the same individual, which helped in estimating the scale of their movements.

Critical insights 

In South Africa, the findings revealed three distinct regional groups of aardvarks, suggesting some degree of isolation among populations in the western, central, and eastern regions. 

The results further indicated that aardvarks could travel up to 55 kilometers from their birthplace, with closely related individuals found as far as 44 kilometers apart. 

Interestingly, the genetic differentiation was more pronounced in arid landscapes, implying that such environments hinder aardvark movement, potentially affecting their gene flow.

Study implications 

The researchers plan to continue the research with genomic analyses and field work across a wider area of sub-Saharan Africa.

“Our initial findings suggest that climate change will increase habitat fragmentation and limit gene flow for aardvarks, particularly where precipitation is expected to decrease and temperature increase,” said Epps. “With aridity expected to increase in southern-most Africa under most climate change scenarios, the need for further research is clear.”

Despite their extensive fieldwork, Epps and his team have yet to see an aardvark in the wild, and hope to do so in the near future. 

The study is published in the journal Diversity and Distributions.


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