Little Armored Ones
A critter we often encounter along our hikes is the Armadillo. While there are 20 species of Armadillos, it’s the Nine-banded Armadillo (Dasypus novemcinctus) that we see in Florida (it’s also common in many of the South-Central states). I love seeing these “little armored ones” along our hikes, as they burrow for grub and noisily stumble across our path….
Armadillos are native to the New World. They’re solitary mammals with a leathery armor shell and very sharp claws, with which they dig their burrows and scrounge for food, including insects, grubs, and other invertebrates. Oftentimes, when we see lots of little holes in an area, we know an Armadillo is nearby, and will listen for rustling in the vegetation. The have very poor eyesight, and use their exceptional sense of smell to hunt. When I say poor eyesight, I mean it…. These little guys have nearly trundled across our boots when we’ve been especially quiet.
Sadly, Armadillos are often the victims of traffic, due to their habit of jumping when startled — right at a car’s fender height. Wildlife enthusiasts are using the Northward March of the Armadillo as an opportunity to educate people about these animals, which can be seen as a nuisance with their burrowing.
Armadillos are among the few known nonhuman animal species that can contract leprosy, to which they’re particularly susceptible due to an unusually low body temperature. Leprosy was unknown in the New World prior to the arrival of Europeans in the late 15th century — so at some point they acquired the disease from humans. Humans can only acquire leprosy from Armadillos by handling them or consuming their meat, which actually has a long and continued history. I recently commented on a very ill-conceived and poorly written CNN article citing the Armadillo-leprosy connection; the author hyped up leprosy, instilling fear in the readers with sheer lack of information — a failure to describe the animal and its behaviors. Why bother? More article hits without pesky science getting in the way! Armadillos are extremely docile and solitary animals. They’re also highly studied in science, not only for their immunity to leprosy, but for their unusual reproductive system, in which four genetically identical offspring are born, the result of one original egg. They’re not the rabid zombies of “Resident Evil” that will attack you in the wild. Misinformation, or lack of information — especially with regards to animals — is simply irresponsible and damaging.
Perhaps the funniest story with Armadillos was when the male had one saunter near him, and was suddenly overtaken with the desire to feel the little guy’s leathery tail. Being both Florida natives and avid hikers, I was curious why he needed to do this, but as soon as his hands were on his tail, the calm girl simply said — “Armadillos are one of the only animals that carry leprosy” (smirk included). I’m so glad I’m not a boy, with weird urges like feeling an Armadillo’s tail.
The Aztec called the Armadillo azotochtli, Nahuatl for “turtle-rabbit” — and in Spanish armadillo means “little armored one”