The aardvark - Orycteropus afer - is the only living species of the order Tubulidentata, family Orycteropodidae; it is the only mammalian order to contain a single extant species. The name Tubulidentata means "tube of teeth" and refers to the unique microstructure of its teeth. Indeed, each tooth consists of thousands of vertical tubes of dentine agglutinated. The genus name - Orycteropus - means "digging foot" (see Lehmann, 2007).
Aardvarks are sparsely scattered throughout sub-Saharan Africa. It has been suggested that the Egyptian God Seth was associated with the aardvark (Frechkop, 1946). This would imply that aardvarks occurred in northern Africa in historical times. Rarely seen, these solitary nocturnal creatures roam the savannah plains night after night in search of ants or a tasty termite mound to help satisfy their appetites. But aardvarks have also been spotted in the forest of Gabon (e.g. Pagès, 1970). There are 18 possible sub-species of extant aardvark but little is known about the actual intra-specific variability (or polymorphism) of Orycteropus afer (see Shoshani et al., 1988, Lehmann, 2006).
The oldest-known fossil reveals that aardvarks lived about 20 million years ago in Africa (Kenya). Moreover, numerous extinct species, aged between 15 and 3 million years, have also been discovered in Europe and Asia. Aardvark diversity was greater in the past than at present, with up to four genera described (Lehmann, 2006). Recent genetic studies (increasingly supported by morphological and palaeontological studies) have suggested that aardvarks are closely related to the dassies (hyraxes), elephants (proboscideans), golden-moles (chrysoclorids), manatees and dugongs (sirenians), tenrecs, and more closely the elephant shrews (macroscelids) (e.g. Stanhope et al., 1998; Springer & Murphy, 2007; Nishihara et al., 2007).