A strange animal in a suit of armor

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-11672474218453.jpg’, ‘Photo by Sandy Day, submitted by Dr. Robert A. Hedeen’, ‘This armidillo was digging up the lawn hunting for ants and had to be trapped.’);

Those in the Rock River Valley who have traveled to rural sections in the South may have seen a strange-looking animal shuffling along the road. Its body is covered by a series of bony plates, and with a long tail and small, pointed head, it presents a most peculiar appearance. It is an armadillo. This relative of the sloth and the anteater is a native of America south of the border, but migrated into Texas from Mexico sometime during the 19th century. Since it crossed the Rio Grande, it has spread east to Florida and north to Nebraska and west to Colorado. To some people, the armadillo might give the impression it is related to the opossum, but it is no more closely related to the opossum than you or I.

The name armadillo comes from a Spanish word relating to its armor-like covering. The only species of armadillo found in the United States is the nine-banded variety. The shoulders and rear end are covered by large plates, and the midsection of the body by nine bony bands. The plates and bands cannot grow as the animal does, and are soft and pliable until the beast attains its full growth when they harden. An adult armadillo will weigh from 8 to 15 pounds. Unlike other mammals, there is very little hair on the body.

While not as slow its relative, the sloth, the armadillo never seems to be in a hurry, except when threatened by a would-be predator. It will roll itself into a protective ball-like shape when cornered or when in danger, and it can scurry through thorny underbrush, protected by its armor.

It has an odd way of traversing waterways that may block its route. If the waterway is a small stream or drainage ditch, the armadillo simply walks across the bottom. If the obstacle is more formidable, the animal will gulp in enough air to inflate its stomach to twice the normal size. With this added buoyancy, it simply swims across. It has been suggested that this method of increasing its buoyancy was employed when it was faced with the mighty Mississippi as it migrated to the east from Texas and Louisiana. In all probability, it ambled across a man-made bridge.

Like its second cousin, the anteater, the armadillo loves to feed on ants. It has a long, sticky, protrudible tongue, which aids in the procuring of its victuals. Grubs, worms and a host of other insects make up the principal diet of the armadillo, though it will occasionally feed on carrion. It has very poor eyesight, but its sense of smell is enhanced. It can detect worms, ants and grubs that are several inches underground. Its teeth are undifferentiated, and consist of 30 to 32 peg-like molars.

Armadillos are frequently used as food in some rural areas of their range, but one is not apt to find them on a restaurant’s menu. The meat is quite edible, and I once dined on it at a meeting of biologists in Texas. If one did not prefer armadillo, fried diamondback rattlesnake could be substituted. In any event, there is no danger that armadillos will be hunted to extinction for food. In many small towns in central Texas, stores offer curios made from armadillo shells. Baskets and lamp shades are popular items, and some fear that if these items gain in popularity, the armadillo population will be endangered. I don’t think there is any chance of that happening in the foreseeable future.

Everything about these strange animals seems to be unusual, including their method of reproduction. A female always gives birth to four individuals of the same sex by a process known as polyembryony. The fertilized egg divides into twins, and both of these two divide once again so four exact clones are produced. This phenomenon was first described by the famous geneticist, the late Dr. J.T. Patterson of the University of Texas. Dr. Pat, as we called him, received his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago about 1910, and was offered positions at both the University of Texas and the University of Michigan. He told his students he chose Texas because he was interested in armadillo reproduction, and there were no armadillos in Michigan. Texas’s gain was Michigan’s loss.

Armadillos are the only animals, besides humans that are known to carry leprosy and, for that reason, the sale of live armadillos in Texas is prohibited. Nevertheless, the armadillo is the official state mammal of Texas. Not surprising, as Texans usually do things differently than the rest of the country.

Dr. Robert Hedeen is a former resident of Maryland’s eastern shore and resided in the Chicago area from 1960 to 1971. He is a retired professor emeritus of biological sciences in the University of Maryland system. He has published more than 30 scientific papers, has written numerous magazine articles, and is the author of two books on the natural history of the Chesapeake Bay.

From the Dec. 27, 2006-Jan. 2, 2007, issue

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