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Of the 20 varieties of armadillo, all but one live in Latin America. The familiar nine-banded armadillo is the only species that includes the United States in its range.
Armadillo is a Spanish word meaning “little armored one” and refers to the bony plates that cover the back, head, legs, and tail of most of these odd looking creatures. Armadillos are the only living mammals that wear such shells.
Closely related to anteaters and sloths, armadillos generally have a pointy or shovel-shaped snout and small eyes. They vary widely in size and color, from the 6-inch-long, salmon-colored pink fairy armadillo to the 5-foot-long, dark-brown giant armadillo. Others have black, red, gray, or yellowish coloring.
Contrary to popular belief, not all armadillos are able to encase themselves in their shells. In fact, only the three-banded armadillo can, curling its head and back feet and contorting its shell into a hard ball that confounds would-be predators.
Habitat and Diet
Armadillos live in temperate and warm habitats, including rain forests, grasslands, and semi-deserts. 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.
Most species dig burrows and sleep prolifically, up to 16 hours per day, foraging 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 occassional carrion meal.
Approximately 20 species of armadillo exist, but the nine-banded is the only one found in the United States. The term “armadillo” means “little armored one” in Spanish, and refers to the presence of bony, armor-like plates covering their body. Despite their name, nine-banded armadillos can have 7 to 11 bands on their armor. A common misconception is that nine-banded armadillos can roll up into spherical balls. In reality, only two species of armadillo (both three-banded) are able to roll up completely. Nine-banded armadillos are about 2.5 feet (0.7 meters) long from the nose to the tip of the tail and weigh an average of 12 pounds (5 kilograms).
Nine-banded armadillos are found in the southeastern United States, but their range has been expanding continually northward for more than a hundred years. A few have even been spotted as far north as Illinois and Nebraska. Armadillos have not yet reached the full extent of their possible range, which one study has predicted may reach as far north as Massachusetts. Climate change caused by increasing carbon in the atmosphere will further expand their potential range.
They prefer warm, wet climates and live in forested or grassland habitats. Small streams are no obstacle for these amazing animals. The nine-banded armadillo can hold its breath for up to six minutes and can swim or “walk” along the bottom of rivers. Their abandoned burrows are utilized by other animals, such as pine snakes, rabbits, opossums, mink, cotton rats, striped skunks, burrowing owls, and eastern indigo snakes.
These armadillos are generalist feeders and use their sense of smell to track down almost 500 different foods, most of which are invertebrates such as beetles, cockroaches, wasps, yellow jackets, fire ants, scorpions, spiders, snails, and white grubs. A lesser part of the diet is comprised of small reptiles and amphibians as well as eggs of mammals, reptiles, and birds. Less than 10 percent of the diet is from fruit, seeds, fungi, and other plant matter.
Nine-banded armadillos almost always give birth to four identical quadruplets. At birth, the carapace of the offspring has not yet hardened and the unprotected young are extremely vulnerable to predation. Armor helps to protect armadillos from predators such as mountain lions, black bears, and alligators. Nine-banded armadillos are nocturnal and spend their waking time burrowing or feeding. They often have a bad reputation because they are the only animal other than humans that can contract leprosy, but cases of humans getting leprosy by handling armadillos are extremely rare. Nine-banded armadillos typically live from 7 to 20 years in the wild. One captive armadillo lived 23 years.
Populations of nine-banded armadillos are increasing. Humans have killed off most of their natural predators, and roadways have offered them easier means of travel to new habitats. Nine-banded armadillos have a tendency to jump straight up into the air when they are startled, which often leads to their demise on highways. They are small enough that cars can pass right over them, but they leap up and hit the undercarriage of vehicles. They are also poisoned, shot, or captured by people that consider them lawn and agricultural pests. Some are eaten or used for the curio trade.
Armadillos have long been a source of food for humans. The nine-banded was nicknamed “poor man’s pork” and “Hoover hog” by people who blamed President Hoover for the Great Depression.
Classification and paleontology
The 20 armadillo species belong to eight genera, which together constitute the family Dasypodidae. Dasypodidae is the only family in the mammalian order Cingulata of the magnorder Xenarthra, which also includes sloths and anteaters. Scaly anteaters (see pangolin) appear similar to armadillos, as they are also armoured mammals; however, they are not found in the New World and belong to a different mammalian order (Pholidota).
Extinct relatives of today’s armadillos included a 2-metre (6.6-foot), 230-kg (500-pound) beast that roamed Florida as recently as 10,000 years ago. It is not certain whether pre-Columbian humans contributed to this armadillo’s extinction. A nearly complete skeleton of an even larger species, dating from the Pleistocene Epoch (about 2.6 million to 11,700 years ago), was found in Texas. This creature belonged to an extinct subfamily of armadillos and was nearly the size of a rhinoceros. The extinct glyptodonts were prehistoric and often massive armadillos with a single unjointed carapace.
Armadillo Scientific Name
The term armadillo is derived from a Spanish word meaning “little armored one,” which was given by Spanish colonialists and explorers who spotted the unusual creature upon their travels through the Americas. The Aztecs had their own term for this creature: ayotochin, a word meaning turtle-rabbit.
Modern armadillos belong to the order Cingulata, a Latin word meaning girdle. It is believed that this order originated some 60 million years ago, when South America was more isolated from the North American landmass. The entire order was once far more diverse, containing a multitude of different armored animals.
Today, there are only two major families of armadillos remaining: the Chlamyphoridae and the Dasypodidae. Of the two, Chlamyphoridae is the most populated. Only one genus of Dasypodidae remains, though it contains the widespread nine-banded armadillo. More distantly, the armadillo is related to anteaters and sloths.
Armadillos look a bit like armored opossums (though unrelated) with their pointed snouts, short legs, a long tail, sharp claws, and big ears. These creatures are commonly known for their rather plain gray or brown appearance, but in fact, some armadillos have pink, red, or even yellow coloring. They also vary widely in size. The smallest is the pink fairy armadillo at a mere 5 inches long, whereas the largest is the giant armadillo at impressive 59 inches and 120 pounds in weight. This is the size of some larger dogs. Giant armadillos also have up to 100 teeth and six-inch claws.
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The armadillo’s most prominent feature, the scaly looking shell, provides an armor-like protection against predators. The armor covers most of head and body and sometimes the legs as well. Despite popular misconception, only one species, the three-banded armadillo, can roll into a ball. The other species dig deep into the ground with their sharp claws to protect their softer parts from damage when threatened by a predator. The number of armored bands on the shell varies by species. In fact, many species are named after the number of bands.
Armadillos are very gifted diggers. By using their sharp claws, they can create massive burrows in the ground to serve as a safe and comfortable home, where, lined with leaves and vegetation, they sleep for up to 16 hours a day. In fact, they are such proficient diggers that their abandoned burrows are sometimes inhabited by snakes, rabbits, skunks, rats, and many other animals. Other potential sources of armadillo nests include hollow logs and long grasses or shrubs.
The digging ability also serves another important purpose: it is the main means of locating food in the ground. This is bolstered by their superior sense of smell, which makes up for their relatively poor eyesight. They can easily sniff out hidden food beyond the sight of most animals. Moreover, long sprouts of hair on their skin (though not their shell) allow them to feel their way around narrow gaps and enclosed environments. Like the anteater, the armadillo has a remarkably long tongue to suck up its prey hiding deep within the ground.
Armadillos have incredibly flexible social arrangements that may change depending on the situation. Most of the time, they enjoy a solitary existence, especially when they come out at night to hunt and forage for food (they are mostly nocturnal animals). But they will sometimes congregate together for several different reasons. The first reason for coming together is to find a mate for the breeding season. The second reason is that they will often huddle together in their burrows to keep warm during cold bouts. Because of a low average body temperature and metabolic rate, they are extremely intolerant to cold weather. For this reason, prolonged periods of cold can be a death sentence.
Armadillos are almost exclusively endemic to Central America and South America. The only exception is the nine-banded species, which is also found in the United States. They are completely absent from Africa, the Eurasian supercontinent, and the Australian area. The greatest variation of this species is found around the Paraguay region. This is due to the fact that it evolved in South America and only slowly migrated out to the rest of the hemisphere. It is possible that armadillos will continue to expand northward into the northern United States and Canada as the climate warms.