The sturdy little fellow called the armadillo is one of nature’s most interesting creatures. Although people recall seeing the armadillo in cartoons curling up into a ball and rolling away like a bowling ball to escape danger, in actuality, only one of the twenty- odd species is able to roll up, and it can not move once it does so. All of the other species have too many bony plates to enable such curling up. They rely on their plates of armour for protection and scurry away or dig themselves into a hole when threatened.
The shell of the armadillo is softer than human fingernails at birth, and gets harder as the animal grows, by depositing bone under the skin. The shell is composed of thin bony plates called scutes. There is no other mammal that has bony plates in its skin. Armadillos have been around for millions of years, evidenced by fossilized scutes found in South America that were over 50 million years old. And in North America, around the region of Illinois, 40 thousand year old fossilized scutes have been found as well.
The armadillo does not need to do much in the way of chewing, since the diet consists mainly of bugs. They have only a few teeth, several peg-like molars, and the teeth have no enamel on them. The armadillo quickly sweeps up insects with its long and very sticky tongue, very similarly to the way its cousin the anteater obtains its food. Long, very strong claws on the front feet assist in tearing into insect nests. These same long claws and feet make for a mean doggy-paddle method of swimming, and the armadillo can swim swiftly, on top of the water by holding air inside the intestines for increased buoyancy. They can also walk for distances under the water along the bottom of river and pond beds.
Some species of armadillos, such as the nine-banded and the seven-banded, exhibit what is known as polyembryony. This is when several offspring, usually four, develop from one egg and share one placenta, in much the same way as when humans have multiple, identical children. Armadillos are the only mammals in the animal kingdom known to do this. Other species, like the six-banded or the giant armadillo, produce one offspring per fertilized egg. Female armadillos also have the unique ability to delay implantation of the fertilized egg during times of stress. In captivity, females have delayed implantation for up to two years.
The armadillo has a very low metabolism; one of the lowest in existence for mammals. They waste little energy and produce little heat. Their temperature is very low and they don’t do well in the cold because of this. They store no fat on their bodies and so must eat daily and without exception in order to stay warm and alive.
Armadillos, as all wild creatures, should be respected. They are not dangerous, and will squeal, squeak, and run away when threatened. They also produce a musky scent that aids in their defense. They live only 5-10 years in the wild, and longer when protected in captivity. The nine-banded has been known to live 20 years in captivity. Their size is about that of a large house cat weighing 8-18 lbs. and measuring 12-18 inches in length. The tail is as long as the body.
Indeed a most fascinating member of the animal kingdom, the armadillo is surrounded in a bit of mystery as well as old wives tales, such as this…people say the armadillo likes to dig up graves and eat the dead. The truth? He loves to dig in softer soil, which may occasionally be found over a newer grave site, and he is digging in search of his favorite meal…bugs!