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Rising temperatures threaten heat-tolerant aardvarks

When nocturnal aardvarks start sunbathing, something’s wrong.

If the animals are desperate enough to bask like some cold, sluggish turtle, it’s because they’ve got the chills. Robyn Hetem, an ecophysiologist, has the body temperature data to prove it — collected from late 2012 into 2013, the hottest summer the arid Kalahari region in South Africa had seen in more than 30 years.

Hotter, drier conditions are predicted to become the norm for southern Africa as the climate changes. Now Hetem and colleagues have used that foretaste of change to show that higher temperatures might hammer the normally heat-tolerant aardvarks by shrinking the animals’ food supply.

Aardvarks live their burrow-digging lives just about anywhere in sub-Saharan Africa except the desert. The toothless night-foragers dine by slurping insect colonies. One of Hetem’s students at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg spent two years collecting hundreds of aardvark droppings and can confirm that Orycteropus afer in the Kalahari eat only termites and ants. Yet the solitary, long-snouted, knee-high mammals are more closely related to elephants than to any pointy-nosed South American anteater.


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