Armadillos

The armadillo is a mammal classified as a toothless animal or an Edentatas . Yet ironically some armadillos have as many as 90 teeth and more than any other mammalian species. Their closest relatives are sloths and anteaters. Contrary to popular belief, the armadillo is neither a rodent nor a marsupial and is not related to the opossum in any way.

Armadillos are found in grasslands and open forests from the southern United States through most of South America.There are twenty different species of armadillos, all ranging greatly in size. The smallest, the pink fairy armadillo, comes from the plains of western Argentina. It measures about six inches and weighs only about three ounces. As you might guess, the giant armadillo is the largest species. It can be found in the eastern portion of South America and measures up to five feet and weighs up to 130 pounds.

Armored digging machines

Like a suit of armor, the armadillo’s back and tail is covered with large, solid plates of skin-covered bone. As armadillos grow older, their young soft leathery skin hardens.  These plates are connected by overlapping bands that encircle their body allowing them to bend, but they are generally not very flexible creatures. Armadillos are suited perfectly for digging; they have strong short front feet and powerful curved claws. This enables them to build underground burrows where they sleep and raise young.

The armadillo’s digging abilities are also very useful in finding food. Its basic diet includes a variety of insects and plants. Most armadillos eat small invertebrates like ants, beetles, grubs and termites. They also enjoy snakes, worms, snails, roots, fruit and sometimes even dead animals. Armadillos do not have very complicated teeth and lack the hard white enamel coating that protects the teeth of other mammals because small bugs and soft plants are not too difficult to chew. Over time, they loose all but their molars leaving only their peg-shaped teeth to remain.

Avoiding Danger

When in danger, different armadillo species react in different ways.  Pink fairy armadillos tend to block the opening of its den with its blunt, scaly rear end. The pichi armadillo species wedges itself into its shallow burrow making it hard for any enemy to drag it out because of its jagged scales. Another way armadillos protect themselves is by digging a new tunnel to vanish into. Other mechanisms armadillos use include running into thorny bushes and relying on their armor to protect them from the thorns or rolling up partially to protect their soft bellies.

Living underground

Most armadillos live solitary lives, but some species live in small groups or in pairs, sometimes even sharing a burrow. The nine-banded armadillos share their burrows, but only with the same sex. The burrows are 2-3 feet deep beneath ground surface and are not branched. Grasslands are the most common environment for armadillos to dig their dens.  While forest underbrushes are the preferred home to the giant and nine-banded armadillos.

Did you know?

When threatened or in danger, the three-banded armadillo is the only species that is capable of rolling its entire body into a tight ball to reveal only its tough armour.  This allows its head, tail and feet to curl in close and keep its body protected. They are so secure in this position that even foxes or wolves cannot get a grip on the smooth plates to crack them open.

-When surprised, the North American nine-banded armadillo tends to jump straight up in the air and, consequently, often throws itself into the undercarriage of cars passing over it.

-The number of rare three-banded armadillos found in central and north-eastern Brazil now lingers at fewer than 100. Even though the three-banded armadillo is one of Brazil’s most endangered species hunting of this unique animal is not prohibited by the Brazilian authorities. As human expansion cuts deeper into Brazil’s forests, the chances of this species survival are also cut down.

-Hunting both as a food source and agricultural pest, slash-and-burn farming and domestic dogs are all other problems that endanger these animals.

-Only one species, the nine-banded armadillo appears to be increasing in number.  Its home range has expanded northward into the United States, as far as Nebraska and as far west as Colorado. Occasional sightings have been made even farther up north, but the cold weather will eventually stop the spread of the armadillo.  This is because armadillos do not possess any large fat reserves to help insulate their bodies; even relatively short periods of extreme cold are intolerable.

-Armadillos can hold their breath under water for as long as 6 minutes and the nine-banded armadillo can do so while walking along the river floor to cross rivers. They do this by swallowing air to blow up their intestine adding buoyancy to their bodies even with their heavy coats or armour.

-Armadillos make snorting sounds as they move, most likely because finding their food depends on their sense of smell.

-An armadillo catches most of its food by pushing its worm shaped tongue far into insect nests and quickly eating whatever it can get its tongue on!

-Many armadillos are nocturnal.

-Along with mangabey monkeys, rabbits, and mice, armadillos have often been used to study the effects of leprosy.  The leprosy bacterium, Mycobacterium leprae, favors the armadillo’s unusually low body temperature and serves as a very hospitable environment.  This vulnerability makes them the only known non-human animal species that can contract the disease systemically.

-In Texas, the armadillo was made the state small mammal where it is considered a pest.

-Armadillos have been kept as pets, although they have very specific requirements including moist ground in which to dig and catch insects.  They are very difficult to domesticate and it is not generally suggested.  In Maine, it is illegal to own an armadillo.

-Most armadillos give birth to twins or just one offspring.  The nine-banded armadillo has a very unusual reproductive system,a phenomenon called polyembryony. This species gives birth to a litter of four identical offspring, quadruplets all of which are the same sex. Sadly, this unique characteristic has been exploited for science.  Scientific, behavioral, or medical tests take advantage of the fact that this group of four can make for good test subjects in need of consistent biological and genetic makeup.