BEHOLD THE ARMADILLO
by Jim Dunlap

Diglet     Behold the armadillo. In Louisiana he is known as 'possum on the half-shell. Here we call him a pillbug on steroids, or the Texas speed bump. Some people think that all armadillos are born dead on the side of the highway! Have you ever stumbled out the door making your way sleepily toward the front side walk looking for the newspaper, and noticed that your front lawn looks like a herd of bad golfers played through during the night practicing chip shots and didn't replace their divots? You are probably the victim of this well-known night prowler's search for food.

     To scientists he is Dasypus novemcinctus, or the nine-banded armadillo. The armadillo is a mammal that has soft fur on its stomach, a long scaly tail, a sticky tongue and a shell on its back. To people who don't get out much, and those from the North, this may sound like some sort of joke. I recently tried to describe him to a friend from New York and the reply was, "You have got to be kidding!"

     The armadillo is one of the oldest surviving mammals, and has been a resident of the earth for 55 million years. The earliest ancestor of the armadillo was the glyptodon; an armored mammal that arrived long after the dinosaur became extinct. The glyptodon was larger than the armadillo, six and one-half to thirteen feet. Our petite nine-banded ancestor grows to thirty-three inches tail included, and can weigh up to seventeen pounds.

     The first thing one notices about the armadillo is the armor-like covering on his body. On other armored mammals this covering is usually made up of compressed hair, but the armadillo's armor consists of small plates of bone, each covered with a layer of horny skin and separated from its neighbors by soft skin from which sparse hairs grow. This bony shell encases the armadillo's upper body and is divided into large shields on the shoulders and rear end with nine bands in between. I will save you the ah ha! because if you have the occasion to count, you may find eight or as many as eleven bands. Nine bands are the usual.

     The armadillo's coloring varies from brown to dark gray, blending in with its characteristic woodsy "stomping grounds." The underside of the armadillo is covered with a scattering of yellowish-white hairs. The male, at 12-17 pounds, is heavier than the female at 8-13 pounds. All four feet are armed with long, sickle-shaped claws. These are important for digging and defense. The tail is long, tapered, and completely covered with bony rings.

     The armadillo has a long pointed nose, ending in a piglike snout. When rooting around for insects, using his acute sense of smell he grunts and sniffs like a pig. Armadillos have large leathery ears which enable then to hear movements of insects underground.

     The armadillo has 30 to 32 peglike molars in a tiny mouth; his teeth are used for chewing rather than biting. The long, thin tongue of the armadillo moves quickly in and out of his mouth to extract insects from the soil. Armadillos usually dine on beetles, ants, worms, grubworms, spiders, and snails.

     Some homeowners complain that armadillos tear up their lawns digging for plant roots. In their defense, as I explain regularly on the telephone, they eat insects not plants and this activity is a means of controlling unwanted insects and digging also serves to aerate the soil. I do not think that information goes over very big.

     Armadillos are inclined to be nocturnal animals. In summer they are inactive during the hottest part of the day and become active in the evening and at night. During winter this pattern is reversed with activity concentrated in the warmest part of the day.

      Unfortunately, the foundation of your house, under your patio deck, or beneath your hot tub, is the likeliest place for an armadillo to set up housekeeping. His home is a den which he makes by burrowing underground 2 to 3 feet. Tunnels may be several feet long leading up to the den and the den itself may be anywhere from two to fifteen feet long. When the armadillo is ready to make a nest he constructs a chamber at the end of the den, then fills it with dried leaves, grasses and other plant materials.

     A few words about reproduction seem appropriate at this point. This will sound made up, but it is not! Anatomically, the adult male has a very prominent and noticeable scrotum and penis. The end of this appendage is peculiar in that it takes on a configuration much like the tip of an elephant's trunk. An unusual aspect of armadillo behavior is that when they sleep their bodies periodically undergo a series of spasmodic jerks. When asked about this action I usually say the armadillo is having nightmares about headlights. They almost always sleep on their backs with all four feet up in the air.

     Here is the scene. I had set up two armadillos in an eight-foot, circular cattle-watering tank. I was alone in the room and I watched them as they slept. I noticed that one of animal's reproductive organs began to extend. It did not change in diameter, but started to move up between his legs. It continued across his stomach, over his chest and up to his neck. He then scratched himself on the chin. This is a distance of about eleven inches.

     I raced through the building looking for a witness. By the time I returned to the tank he had retracted the appendage and was again lying there twitching. I called zoo friends. After I told my story I always got much the same reaction - - a long period of silence. I am still searching for further information, but with no success.

     Young armadillos are born in the spring after a gestation period of approximately 150 days. Identical quadruplets are the rule in nine-banded armadillo deliveries. This is the only mammal known to conceive quadruplets at every birth. Four pups develop from a single fertilized egg; therefore, all are the same sex and have identical sets of genes.

     Newborn armadillos are fully formed miniatures of their parents. At birth, they are pretty in pink. Their armor is soft and leathery, but hardens as they grow older, becoming fully hardened at about two years. They are born with their eyes open and are able to walk unsteadily within a few hours of birth.

     In the local folklore armadillos are commonly referred to as "gravediggers" and are thought to burrow into human graves and dine upon the deceased. Their mouths are so small they would have a tough time, well you know, getting in there in the first place. A freshly dug grave must look like an unlocked pantry to an armadillo. If you had a choice between digging in hard packed clay or soft loose humus, which would you choose? It is easier to forage for insects in loose ground.


Jim Dunlap, jim.dunlap@pisd.edu

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