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Consider the Armadillo

Thursday, February 12, 2015

The nine-banded armadillo is an oddity to me. I know nothing about them other than what I've read. My encounters have been limited to a few minutes each, near dusk, in Florida, or perhaps poring over my first roadkill in amazement.

So what I'm going to give you here you could get about anywhere, but it's interesting to me. The armadillo is a collection of bizarre characteristics rolled into leathery armor. It's not just a possum in a can.

The armadillo family (Dasypodidae) finds its richest expression in South  America, where it originated. They belong to the superorder Xenarthra, along with the anteaters and sloths.  Paraguay has 11 species of armadillo. By the early Pleistocene, nine-banded armadillos had used the Isthmus of Panama to invade North America, where they range as far north as central Indiana and Nebraska, and east to Florida and South Carolina. I had no idea there were Hoosier armadillos. Nebraska? They must be more cold-tolerant than they look. My gosh. Whatever do they do in the winter, when there are no ants and termites and beetle grubs to eat? I read that they retreat underground to escape the cold, but they are unable to hibernate, and die in freezing temperatures. Soooo....what are they doing in the Great Plains? Expanding their range, and dying out each winter at its northern terminus? Scratching my head here.
Stay in Florida, little armadillo. Though I'm sure there are many who'd like to export you.


So this little animal in a can is puttering alongside the car and I'm staring at it as if it time traveled in that can because we have nothing like this in Ohio. It's an edentate, an insectivore. It gives birth to four IDENTICAL young, same sex, from a single egg that splits into four parts. So it'll have identical quadruplets, all boys or all girls. 
Because of this, and the fact that armadillos can contract leprosy, they've attracted attention of lab researchers. When you have four identical twins to work with, you can do all kinds of experiments on the animals without worrying about your results varying because of genetic differences between them. 

 The perfect lab animal. Lucky armadillos!


They look like they're walking on tiptoe all the time, on their heavy clawed toes.  They can dig very fast, and disappear almost before your eyes in nice loamy loose soil.


photo by Liam Thompson

Their armor is so beautiful. I kept wondering what an armadillo skeleton might look like--what's under all that? The armor is a combination of dermal bone and horn. Amazing. The bands remind me of those rubbery accordion-folded connectors between subway cars. The design of the animal is quite amazing. I was thrilled to find this photo of an armadillo skeleton! 


My God! I mean, just start with the ribs--widened, laterally flattened--and that crest of vertebral processes along the spine! Do you need very strong intracostal muscles to be able to breathe under all that armor? I wonder... You can see the crests on the scapula where enormous digging muscles insert. Those massive forearm and thigh bones, the bizarre tilted pelvis and the insanely cool skull, which is pretty much exactly what the armadillo's head looks like (eyes seem to be an afterthought when you dig for things you can smell). It all makes me want to pick up the next armadillo roadkill I find and somehow get that skull--heck, the whole skellington. Little peglike teeth for crunching down ants and termites. And the way the shell sits over it all. What an inspired mount.  When I look at this skeleton all I see is raw power, from the massive nature of the bones. 

Apparently a frightened nine-banded armadillo can jump straight up 3-4 feet in the air.  Which is probably an elegant escape/startle strategy when it's surprised, say, by a bear. And which, as anyone who's hit one knows, is bad when you are trying to straddle an armadillo on the highway. 
A tremendous BONK! and it's dead. Do not straddle the armadillo.

I can't leave this post without giving you a pink fairy armadillo, which looks to me like a mammalian rock shrimp. Oh my. This takes weird new places, to cute and back.


 Imagine if these had walked up the Isthmus of Panama to central Indiana. 


Liam and I felt privileged to be able to observe a live armadillo, snuffling around, looking for edibles in the grass and the golden light of a Florida evening. It's a wonderful world, when animals like this are pottering alongside the road for anyone to see.



16 comments:

Wonderful post.
Best regards!

LOVE this!... long fascinated by these guys, and supposedly they're moving my way. Hope to see one meander across my backyard before I die... and if I do, I'll think "possum in a can" and laugh gleefully!

Possum in a can! LOL!

Maybe they are moving north, despite the fact that to do so means death, because they have suicidal tendencies? I mean, "armadillo" has become rather synonymous with "roadkill".

Hi Julie: I haven't seen a vid of a nine banded in action yet, but the related giant armadillo is a functional biped. One of your pics looks like the nine banded was resting its weight on its hindlegs and just testing the soil with the tips of its manus claws. Looks like a very delicate motion! I am envious that you were able to see one in action.

We camped onetime, and put our leftover beans out for the armadillos. They don't see or hear well, so you can actually get pretty close and watch them eat without scaring them off. There was one that lived in my neighborhood (houston) some years back, in an overgrown lot that has since been built upon. For inner city, we have lots and lots of critters (bayou just below us, large historic cemetery to our immediate west).

Fascinating post. Never seen one of these canned tykes.

Saw my first in a state park close to Houston. There was a pair digging furiously away for their dinner and it took a bit of noise before they realized we were there and the skedaddled. I grew up in central Indiana and can say that I never saw one or heard of anyone seeing armadillos either. Maybe they're a relatively recent arrival.

Great post, Julie! This is so fascinating to me as a fellow Ohioan, to whom armadillos are terribly exotic. However, did you mean that they have four "sets" of identical twins, which would total eight babies, or do they have identical quadruplets?

Armadillos are interesting swimmers, too. They can inflate their intestines to swim on the surface, or sink and walk along the bottom. Amazing creatures!

Posted by Mary Nevil February 12, 2015 at 11:59 AM

I've always wanted to come upon one of these beasties live, but so far (like Moose and Blue Whales) it remains to be seen. Nice blog post, thank you.

I first met armadillos as a thirteen year old when my parents moved me to Louisiana. We lived on a campground so I had a large area in which to roam. My dog, a terrier mix, and I used to capture armadillos. We would chase them into a hole they had dug to feed, rather than their den hole. They would grip the dirt tightly with their front feet but their tails would be hanging out. I'd grab the tail and my dog would dig them out of the hole.

My mother was not impressed and I only kept them for a few hours. And I got to talk to some cancer researchers once and they told me how they kept a colony of armadillos surrounded by chain link fencing - it was even ten feet underground so they could have burrows but couldn't tunnel out.

Hard to believe, but armadillos have been found here in the mountains of North Carolina. Amazing animals.

Thanks for that information. I live in S. Alabama. I found four babies about 2 years ago on my four acres. they couldn't have been too old. Their shells were still soft and they were all males. I picked them all up and looked @ them. Hairy little faces. I did wash my hands very good.
I have been told their vision is poor and that is why they wander into the roadways. I have also seen them jump very high. Just touch them and they will take off.

Posted by Anonymous February 13, 2015 at 5:45 PM

Daughter lives in Nashville. They see them as roadkill there past few years

They're always interesting to encounter. Standing on their hind legs to sniff the air, rustling through dry leaves or palmetto scrub, throwing up geysers of dirt with those strong claws.

Thanks for highlighting an underappreciated critter.

saw my first one of these in Western FL....fascinated. Sad that people run themover on purpose. they look like little dinosaurs with fringed ears.

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