Species Spotlight: Armadillo

Of the 20 surviving varieties of the world’s armadillos, only one species can be found in the United States. While the nine-banded armadillo’s population is increasing, many of its cousins in Latin America are threatened, over-hunted and used for traditional dishes.

The nine-banded armadillo ranges from southern Texas to the southeastern tip of New Mexico, through Oklahoma from the southeastern corner of Kansas and the southwestern corner of Missouri, through most of Arkansas to southwestern Mississippi. The range also includes central Alabama, Georgia and most of Florida. Armadillos live in temperate and warm habitats, including rain forests, grasslands, and semi-deserts, but prefer dense, shady cover. They prefer sandy soil or loam soils that are loose and porous. The armadillo will also inhabit areas having cracks, crevices and rocks that are suitable for burrows. Because of their low metabolic rate and lack of fat stores, cold is their enemy and spates of intemperate weather can wipe out whole populations.

Closely related to anteaters and sloths, the armadillo is a rather interesting and unusual animal. It has a protective armor of “horny” material on its head, body and tail, and is the only mammal to wear such a shell. Its bony body armor has nine movable rings between the shoulder and hip shield and its long tapering tail is encased by 12 bony rings. Its head is small with a long, narrow, piglike snout. The nine-banded armadillo varies in size and color but is usually the size of an opossum, weighing from 8 to 17 pounds and having color that ranges from brown, black, red, gray or yellow.

Most species use their sharp claws to dig burrows and sleep prolifically up to 16 hours then forage in the early morning and evening for beetles, ants, termites and other insects. They have very poor eyesight and utilize their keen sense of smell to hunt. Strong legs and huge front claws are used for digging, and long, sticky tongues for extracting ants and termites from their tunnels. In addition to bugs, armadillos eat small vertebrates, plants, and some fruit, as well as the occasional carrion meal.

The young are born in a nest within the burrow. The female produces only one litter each year in March or April after a gestation period ranging from 60 to 150 days. The litter always consists of quadruplets of the same sex. The young are identical since they are derived from a single egg, making this North American armadillo a reproductive anomaly. The young are always born with soft, leathery skin that hardens within a few weeks when they leave their parents and go off to live alone.

The armadillo is a fascinating animal and can be seen in national, state and local parks throughout the Southern United States. Enjoy watching these creatures but don’t get too close!

Fun Facts:

• Armadillos have the ability to remain under water for as long as six minutes. Because of the density of its armor, an armadillo will sink in water unless it swallows air, inflating its stomach to twice normal size and raising its buoyancy above that of water, allowing it to swim across narrow streams and ditches.

• The nine-banded armadillo’s hapless propensity for being run over by cars has earned it the nickname “Hillbilly Speed Bump.”

• Many cultures in the Americas consume armadillo flesh, which is said to resemble pork in its flavor and texture.

• Disease is a factor associated with this species. Armadillos can be infected by the bacterium Mycobacterium leprae, the causative agent of leprosy, and can pass this disease on to humans through touch or if eaten.

• Armadillo is a Spanish word meaning “little armored one.”

Image: A nine-banded armadillo scouting for food.

Source: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service