(This 872nd Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on December 9, 2007.)
Alabama Backyard Armadillo
photo by Brenda Copeland
My candidate for strangest of our North American mammals is the armadillo.
I've only seen one and that was under unusual circumstances. Several years ago my friend Earl Colborn and I were looking for birds on Merritt Island where the Kennedy Space Center is located. At the side of the road within a few yards of a giant crane we came upon an armadillo foraging in the roadside grass. It seemed to me a remarkable association: here was this dinosaur throwback feeding quietly next to a device designed to help send rockets into space.
We didn't have much opportunity to observe this odd animal as it soon waddled off into the undergrowth, but there is no mistaking an armadillo. No other animals look like a cross between a turtle and an accordion.
Armadillos were until as recently as 1995 classified together with anteaters and sloths but now they have been assigned to their own order. Dozens of armadillo species and even families are known only through fossil remains.
Today the remaining twenty armadillo species are distributed through Central and South America, but the range of only one extends into the southern United States. Ours is the nine-banded armadillo. The bands are those moveable mid-body ridges that give the animal's otherwise stiff bony shell some flexibility.
Adults of this species are 30-35 inches long, about a foot of that length in their tail. The long narrow head is also covered with what looks like armor, but standing erect above the head are large black and white ears that seem to me another odd design feature of this otherwise turtle-like animal. Armadillos are said to have poor eyesight so those ears probably give them a better sense of their surroundings.
Other important features of these animals are their legs and feet. Armadillos are diggers and those short legs are very strong. Their forepaws have four sharp claws that further assist in that digging. They dig for food, mostly grubs, insects and other invertebrates, but they will also feed on carrion and garbage and they even raid henhouses for eggs. Although they often make their homes in natural cavities or holes dug by other animals like woodchucks, they also burrow their own retreats.
The South American three-banded armadillo can roll up into a ball like a hedgehog, but our nine-banded species cannot. For that reason it has adopted several different defenses. It retreats into the undergrowth or even occasionally climbs a tree. Or, like a possum, it plays dead, lolling on its back, drooling with its tongue out.
Another strange armadillo defense reaction is most unfortunate. These animals are small enough that, unless one was in the direct path of a car wheel, the car would pass over it. But, when surprised, armadillos jump straight up just far enough to be hit by a car chassis. This leads to many highway deaths and their bodies line the roads especially of rural Texas.
It seems that everything about this animal is unusual. Armadillos are used in medical research because they are among the few animals that share with us susceptibility to leprosy. This is evidently because their body temperature is lower than most other animals.
And our nine-banded armadillos have another surprising trait. Their four young are always born as identical same-sex quadruplets. This makes them of special interest to scientists looking for consistent biological and genetic histories.
The reason I write about these animals now was my recent visit to my brother-in-law's country home in Hartselle, Alabama. He showed me photos of a pair of armadillos that had apparently taken up residence in the hedgerow behind their gardens. I spent several hours searching for them there without success, but my wife did catch a glimpse of one.
Clearly doing well, these animals, first recorded north of the Rio Grande in 1850, are now found around the Gulf of Mexico into Florida and as far north as Nebraska. It is expected that they will some day reach southern Pennsylvania.
Now rarely eaten, armadillos served during the depression as food for poor families. They came then to be known as Hoover hogs, a sad substitute for that president's promise of "a chicken in every pot.-- Gerry Rising"