I was wondering if large animals could possibly dig extensive burrows for themselves to live in. The polar bear burrows, but snow is not dirt. The aardvark goes about 4' long, ~150 lbs: similar to a sheep. I think the aardvark might be the biggest dirt-burrowing animal, the only sheep-sized burrower.

I wonder why.

Is there anything special about the aardvark that at its size it burrows, while other burrowers are smaller?

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    $\begingroup$ Welcome to SE Biology! This question is quite broad and open-ended, making it difficult to answer. It's helpful to ask somewhat more targeted questions to get good answers. I'd recommend looking a little at the wikipedia page for aardvarks (if you haven't already) and see what it has to say on this topic: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aardvark. Perhaps you can find a way to sharpen the question to be more specific and easier to answer. $\endgroup$ – Maximilian Press Mar 22 at 23:20
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks to ukemi for finding a good answer and thank you for the asking tips! I did read Wiki and a few other pages about the aardvark and burrowing before I asked. 'Fossorial' was a very useful search term to learn. $\endgroup$ – Vir Mar 23 at 1:24

The following paper examines the link between burrowing ability and the stress and strain resistance provided by increased endosteal tissue formation (specifically compacted coarse cancellous bone (CCCB)) in aardvarks:

Physiological constraints associated with digging, however, are known to be strongly influenced by body size, and larger burrowers are likely to exhibit a histological profile more conspicuously influenced by fossorial activity. Here, we describe for the first time the limb bone histology of the aardvark (Orycteropus afer), the largest extant burrowing mammal...

We hypothesize that the unusual histological profile of the aardvark is likely the outcome of physiological constraints due to both extensive digging behavior and strong metabolic restrictions. Adaptations to fossoriality are thus the result of a physiological compromise between limited food availability, an environment with high temperature variability, and the need for biomechanical resistance during digging. These results highlight the difficulties of deciphering all factors potentially involved in bone formation in fossorial mammals. Even though the formation and maintaining of CCCB through ontogeny in the aardvark cannot be unambiguously linked with its fossorial habits, a high amount of CCCB has been observed in the limb bones of other large burrowing mammals.

Further reading:

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  • $\begingroup$ These articles discussed factors affecting burrowers, and linked to many more useful ones. They need strong limbs (probably short), a way to support their weight if they dig fast with all fours digging (e.g., tail), and not to overheat while digging hard. The first article seemed to take the body size for granted and discussed that eating ants limits further bone grown and higher metabolic rate. Other links in that paper make lower basal rate important for larger size. So I guess bigger burrowers would need that much more help working cool, and that much better diet, plus reason to burrow. $\endgroup$ – Vir Mar 23 at 1:14
  • $\begingroup$ So that answers about bigger burrowers, though I still wonder why the aardvark itself is comparatively large :) Myself, I didn't figure that out from the article and the links I looked through there. $\endgroup$ – Vir Mar 23 at 1:16

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