Little known facts about the “little armored one”

November 18, 2013

Nature Notes by Bill Dunson


The Armadillo

Everyone is familiar with the lowly armadillo (the “little armored one”) that shuffles around with its face in the dirt snuffling for buried insects and other prey. But what do you really know about it?

It is probably an exotic mammal that was released from western N. America into Florida in the 1920’s, but has prospered very well. It is ecologically a small version of the feral pig that disturbs the ground by digging holes and disrupts the native ecosystem by eating prey that would normally be taken by native predators. It is very fond of reptilian eggs and destroys many turtle nests. It is probably more destructive than the often-reviled Mexican spiny-tailed iguana would ever be. Thus rational efforts to control exotic species should include the armadillo.

It is a mammal related to the anteaters, sloths, and extinct glyptodonts (whose plates are sometimes found on beaches or on river bottoms). Notice the hairs on the specimen in the photo in between the reptilian-like plates that fit together as an armor.

It cannot roll up into a ball to try to escape attack by predators, but can run quite fast to escape into brush and even swim. But its senses of sight are poor as you may have noticed when you can sometimes get quite close to a feeding armadillo.

It has genetically identical quadruplets as babies. This unusual characteristic, its low body temperature, and its unique ability (except for humans and a very few other mammals) to catch the leprosy bacteria made it one of the species of choice for studies of leprosy and how to cure it.

I came across this armadillo at the Joseph Tract (Ainger Creek Trails-Morningside Dr access) while hiking today and picked it up by the tail to get a closer look at it. It was very calm and endured my inspection with good humor. Perhaps the meek armadillo will indeed inherit the earth! It has made a good start.

Bill Dunson, Englewood, FL & Galax, VA

Bill Dunson

About Bill Dunson

Bill Dunson, born in rural Georgia, skipped 12th grade and went directly to Yale. Bill subsequent-ly received a PhD in Zoology from the University of Michigan, studying softshell turtles. Bill is Professor Emeritus of Pennsylvania State University thanks to a career spent entirely at that institution, teaching and doing research on the physio-logical ecology and ecotoxiciology of reptiles, amphibians and fish. Always curious about nature, Bill has dedicated his life to learning and sharing his knowledge with others. He has served on many advisory boards here in Southwest Florida to preserve the water that gives life to our region.

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