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Baby aardvark (born Jan. 12, 2012) and mom Jessi at Brookfield Zoo.
The Chicago Zoological Society (CZS), which manages Brookfield Zoo, is happy to announce the birth of an aardvark on January 12, 2012. And, because of the dedicated care provided by the Society’s zookeepers, veterinarians, veterinary technicians, and nutritionist, the now healthy 13-pound calf has a bright future ahead of it. Although the calf will not be on exhibit for several months, zoo guests will be able to view it via a live video monitor In the near future.

A newborn aardvark, which weighs about 4½ pounds at birth, is very fragile for its first few weeks of life. To ensure its best chance for survival, Animal Programs staff decided to assist the calf’s 7-year-old mom, Jessi, in rearing her infant. Since its birth, the unsexed calf has received around-the-clock care that has included a neonatal examination and extra hydration and supplemental feeding when needed to make certain it is healthy and gaining the proper amount of weight. The supplemental aardvark formula the calf receives replicates the fat, carbohydrates, and other nutrients of a mother aardvark’s milk composition.


Zookeeper Dana Vinci giving a bottle to aardvark calf born Jan. 12, 2012

For several weeks following its birth, the calf spent nights at the zoo’s Animal Hospital being cared for by the veterinary staff and brought back to its mom in the mornings. Aardvarks are nocturnal and Jessi sleeps during the day, giving the calf uninterrupted time to nurse and get all the nutrients it can from its mother’s milk. This scenario mimics what would take place in the wild: a mother aardvark would leave its burrow to go forage for food during the night and return in the morning to sleep while the calf nurses.

Since 1992, there have been nine aardvarks born at Brookfield Zoo, the last one in 2002. Jessi and the calf’s sire, Hoover, 17, are at Brookfield Zoo on breeding loans from Memphis Zoo and San Antonio Zoo, respectively. The pairing of Jessi and Hoover was based on a recommendation by the Association of Zoo and Aquariums’ Aardvark Species Survival Plan (SSP). An SSP is a cooperative population management and conservation program for the species in North American zoos. The program manages the breeding of aardvarks in zoos to maintain a healthy, self-sustaining population that is both genetically diverse and demographically stable. Joan Daniels, associate curator of mammals for CZS, is the current Aardvark SSP coordinator. In addition, CZS staff have contributed to the AZA’s aardvark animal care manual. Currently, there are 28 aardvarks in 12 accredited North American zoos. Brookfield Zoo is home to four aardvarks, including Bernaard, 28, who is one of the oldest living aardvarks in the population.

 

Very little is known about aardvarks, an animal that some might consider odd looking, with their ears like a donkey, a tongue like an anteater, and a snout like a pig. Aardvark is an Afrikaans word that means “earth pig,” an appropriate name for these animals because of their unusual appearance and feeding behavior. The species is the only living representative of its order, the tubulidentata (“tube-toothed).

Being nocturnal, aardvarks rely on their senses of smell and hearing when searching for food after dark. With their hairy snout close to the ground and ears pointed forward, they follow a zigzag pattern to locate termite mounds. Once they find a mound, aardvarks use their powerful spoon-shaped claws to uncover their prey and slurp up a meal with their sticky, foot-long tongue. Aardvarks can eat 90,000 insects in a single day. In addition to termites, they eat ants and a wild fruit that grows underground. The seeds pass through their digestive system unharmed to germinate in new locations—an effective dispersal technique. Sometimes a fruit plant can indicate an aardvark burrow nearby.

In their native habitat of Africa south of the Sahara Desert, aardvarks sleep in burrows during the day to avoid the hot sun. When tired, aardvarks yawn, sticking their tongue straight out and then rolling it back in like a party favor. Depending on the soil type, aardvarks can dig a burrow within five to 20 minutes. They use various types of burrows: one made while foraging; temporary sites on the home range to be used for refuge in bad weather; and a permanent refuge site where young are born. The last is more elaborate, with numerous chambers and several entrances. As part of CZS’s animal behavioral enrichment program, zookeepers give the aardvarks plenty of burlap sacks and boxes and an occasional sand pile to burrow in.


Aardvark calf born Jan.12, 2012 at Brookfield Zoo