The inside and out of a misunderstood mammal

Chris Banner

By A Contributor

To set the record straight, an armadillo is a mammal - a warm-blooded, placental creature that bears live offspring and suckles its young. Despite its carapace, which somewhat resembles a turtle’s shell, it is not a reptile like a turtle, nor a cross between a turtle and a hedgehog. It is a mammal.

A member of the order Xenarthra, which includes anteaters and sloths, the armadillo (Dasypus novemcinctus) originated in South America and is found naturally only in the Americas. The fossil record shows several ancestral forms, some of which Charles Darwin examined and which helped to form his understanding of evolution.

Of the 21 present day species, only the nine-banded managed over thousands of years to migrate all the way from Argentina to the Rio Grande valley, where James Audubon reported it in 1850. It may have crossed the Mississippi around 1940. It has spread east to Florida and north at least to Nebraska - quite an impressive environmental range of adaptability.

Despite its having been named the Texas State Animal in 1981, it is perhaps best known in Texas as road-kill. Why did the chicken cross the road? To show the armadillo it was possible.

This book’s natural history of the armadillo focuses on the animal and its habitats in the U.S. The U.S. is where Loughry and McDonough have worked for more than 20 years. Relatively little research has been done south of the border. “Nine-banded” is a comprehensive look at many issues concerning the species.

Central to “Nine-banded” are evolutionary considerations of the animal’s physical, reproductive, nutritional and behavioral characteristics. It also discusses how the armadillo relates to surrounding environments and diseases.

While such a book could be deadly for the layman to read, this one is written for both the educated reader with a decent background in biology, as well as the specialist. The authors do not throw fact after fact at the reader; instead they introduce and follow out evolutionary issues while relating them to each particular topic of discussion.

Armadillos have a shell, or carapace, claws, poorly developed teeth and do not see well. The carapace is protection against predators; the claws are necessary to dig for food and for burrowing to make homes; and the teeth are not greatly needed because they eat soft foods such as insects. Their well developed senses of smell and hearing compensate for their poor eyesight.

The female armadillo meets a male and mates sometime during the fall. The male, having done his duty, goes his way, and ceases to be a part of her life. They have nothing further to do with each other. The fertile egg does not implant until some time later. 

At some time, the egg divides into four separate parts, which then develop into four identical embryos sharing one placenta. They are born 4 1/2 months later in a nest in the mother’s burrow. After being weaned, each juvenile sets out by itself to a life somewhere. Researchers have not able to trace where they go.

Armadillos mainly eat insects that live just below the surface of the soil. They just move along, digging up the soil with their front claws, using their noses to find their food. They can be unpopular with humans living nearby because the animals tear up their prized lawns in a search for food.

Armadillos are solitary creatures. They live alone in their burrows unless they have suckling young. They also hunt for food alone. The juveniles do not hunt or play together to any extent the way other mammals do.

When able to leave their mother’s burrow, they never see each other again. Population biologists have great difficulty in tracking individuals to learn what sort of territorial needs they have. They do not make good pets.

A fact of particular interest is that only humans and armadillos can have leprosy (Mycobacterium leprae). As a part of their general consideration of armadillo diseases, the authors spend most of a chapter exploring what is known about this bacterial disease; how it fits into the animals and our evolutionary survival; how it is transmitted among armadillos and humans; the difficulties of culturing it in the laboratory and tracking it in the wild.

Once the reader gets used to seeing references cited in a scientific style, “The Nine-banded Armadillo: a Natural History” reads fairly easily.

The drawings, photos, tables and maps help the reader in understanding of what the authors say. The 41-page bibliography is impressive. If a reader wants to see a live armadillo, Manhattan’s Sunset Zoo has one in its educational collection.

A reader should find “The Nine-banded Armadillo” interesting and challenging reading.

Christopher Banner is an emaritus senior specialist in music at K-State and a Manhattan resident.

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