I was standing next to a big rock while squirrel hunting in the Ozarks and heard a commotion in the leaves on the other side of the rock. It sounded like multiple squirrels stirring up leaves in search of nuts. I slowly sneaked around the rock, but there were no squirrels. I did, however, find an armadillo.
I was amazed at seeing one. I thought they only lived in the waste lands of west Texas. I was also amazed at the agility of the armadillo. I thought they were sloth like critters but they can really get around.
When I first spotted the armadillo all I saw was its armored upper body and tail. The head was buried under the leaves lining the forest floor. As I watched, the armadillo scooted around in an irregular pattern on its short stubby legs. Once or twice it popped its head up and then went back to the business of searching for food under the leaves.
Once it stopped, looked up, and then jumped and then resumed searching under the leaves. After watching this fascinating critter for about 20 minutes, I decided I should get back to the hunt and find out more about armadillos. I found out from some local friends and armadillos are mainly nocturnal so seeing one in the daytime is somewhat unusual.
There are about 20 species of armadillos but only the nine band armadillo lives in the United States. The nine band armadillos began migrating from South America to North America several hundred years ago and reached Texas around 1850. They have been migrating north and east ever since. Armadillos can be found in an area from Texas to Kansas to southern Indiana to Virginia and all places south and east of this line.
The armadillo that I watched rooting around under the leaves was looking for insects and grubs. The critter finds the bugs with its nose. The armadillo has a very powerful sniffer and about one-third of their brain is dedicated to smell. They also have a very long and sticky tongue to help the scoop up the bugs and long claws which they use to dig up their dinner. Armadillos eat a variety of insects and other invertebrates including grubs, beetles, ants, termites and maggots from carrion. An individual armadillo will eat around 200 pounds of bugs in a year.
Armadillos do not store much body fat, so they must eat constantly. Their eye sight is poor, but their hearing is good enough to locate bugs and predators. The armadillo I saw did not pay attention to me and I watched for about 15 minutes. It looked at me a couple of times, but I was not moving so it did not seem to notice me. In addition to using its clawed feet for digging up food, the armadillo also digs a burrow to sleep in. The burrow is usually very deep and can have multiple chambers.
Armadillos have some really amazing physical traits. They can actually walk underwater for up to six minutes. They can also swim by using a dog paddle, but their heavy armor makes floating difficult. Amazingly, the armadillo has the ability to gulp lots of air into their intestines and stomach, and, viola, they can float and swim across rivers and streams. They will also use their jumping ability to leap narrower streams. In addition to long jumping, they can jump up to four feet vertically to escape predators.
Armadillos are a semi-cold-blooded mammal, so extended below freezing temperatures can be hard on them. They do have an amazing system of veins and arteries in their upper legs that acts as a heat exchange so the warm blood stays in their upper body while the cold blood travels to their legs. The advantage is that their core body temperature is maintained in cold weather, but it leaves their lower legs vulnerable to frost bite. Even though armadillos are moving northward, they probably won’t be living in Wisconsin any time soon.
Armadillos produce four genetically identical babies from a single egg. The females can also delay implantation of fertilized eggs for an extended period. Scientists believe the delay can be as long as four months, but some reports claim it can be as long as two years. The delayed fertilization is one reason for the ability armadillos have to expand their range. It’s much easier for the mother to move and set up a house hold without having to dragging dad along. The gestation period for armadillos is 60 to 120 days. The reproduction rate is high, as a single female can produce over 50 offspring over its life time.
Baby armadillos are born with a soft shell. As they age, that soft shell hardens into bone covered with fingernail-like skin. The bone is divided into sections called scutes. The divisions allow the armadillos to have armor and yet remain flexible. The sections are connected by skin and the armor connects to the vertebra in the backbone. The underside of the armadillo is unprotected.
Armadillos weigh anywhere from five to 15 pounds and can be 42 inches long from nose to tail. The tail is about half of the total length. Their legs are very short in comparison to their body size.
If you are in the southern climes, take a walk in the woods and look for an armadillo. They are fascinating creatures.