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WILDLIFE: Armadillos - Meet The Lovable Underdog
Did you know that armadillos have made irreplaceable contributions to the treatment of a serious human disease?
Sure, ok, so they're kinda ugly and weird, and maybe dumber than rocks too but....
Did you know that armadillos left Florida for 5,000 years, and have just recently returned in the last few decades?
Did you know there used to be armadillos as big as black bears, and that 100 pound armadillos live to this day?
Did you know this site will finally answer all those embarrassing questions you've always had about farting armadillos, but were afraid to ask?
You know maybe those armadillos aren't as dumb as they look. Here's a true story.
One day Kathy was scanning the tree tops for hawks. While Kathy was distracted, one of the armadillos living in our yard walked right up to her, and stood between her feet, sniffing her ankle.
There was no encouragement or bait, just a one of those rare moments when a normally shy critter's curiousity overwhelms it's caution.
We think this brave little dillo was trying to say, "Thanks for making us famous on the Internet!"
Or, then again, it might have been, "Hey you, you're standing on my grubs!"
Armadillos aren't cute, they aren't cuddly, and quite honestly they seem to be sort of the dim wit of the mammal family.
But if you spend any time in the north Florida woods, especially during the winter, you come across them all the time and after awhile you start to get hooked on their unique style of underdog charm.
I spent one clear March afternoon, deep in the woods, doing a photo shoot with Andy Armadillo, the guy you see pictured on this page. After the shoot was over we sat around Andy's burrow munching on grubs and drinking Michelob beers.
During our chat Andy was insistent that I get on that Internet thing and, for crying out loud, learn something about armadillos.
Like for instance, armadillos don't drink Michelob beer!
"We drink Coronas Phil, Corona beer, try to remember that you dim wit and bring the right beer next time."
Appropriately embarrassed I promised I would get up to speed on armadillos. Here's what I've learned.
It seems there are a number of different types of armadillos, with interesting names like: nine banded armadillos, six banded armadillos, three banded armadillos, pink armadillos, hairy armadillos, and.... (drum roll please) GIANT armadillos.
An interesting true fact about the hairy armadillo is that it is such a deep sleeper that it won't awaken if you handle it while it's snoozing.
Which of course means that if you want to snuggle under the covers with a hairy armadillo in front of the TV with some popcorn, it's perfectly safe to do so. Isn't that great news!?
Of course these are the common names for armadillos, not the proper scientific designations. But rather than correctly pronouncing "Genus Dasypus" in a dignified manner, isn't it more fun to pull another brew out of the cooler and then holler something like "WATCH OUT for that Six Banded Giant Pink Hairy Armadillo!!" ?
Of course it is.
The nine banded armadillos, like Andy, are the only ones who live in Florida. Nine banded armadillos are a foot or two long, and weigh 20 or so pounds at most. They are durable little guys who live 7 to 10 years.
A nine banded armadillos spends his or her life in about a 10 acre area and may dig a dozen or more burrows on their territory.
During the summer they tend to snooze in their burrows during the heat of the day, and then come out at night to forage in the soil for grubs and insects. They have sticky fast tongues designed for efficiently slurping up bugs. Andy says that if you can offer him some bug flavored popcorn CORONA beer while you watch Friends reruns together, he'd be happy to slurp that up too.
They are easier to see during the winter when they are more likely to emerge during the warmth of the day. This is convenient for armadillo watchers, because the winter is the sensible time for hiking the Florida woods.
The rest of the armadillo family lives in South America. And thank God for that.
Did you know that the Giant Armadillo in South America can grow up to 5 feet long including their tail, and weigh up to 100 pounds? Go ahead, try snuggling with that, I dare you.
Would you believe that an armadillo the size of a black bear roamed the southeastern United States about 2 million years ago? Yup, it's true.
Armadillos In Florida
Nine banded armadillos just recently returned to Florida after a long vacation in South America.
Really, no kidding.
How long were they gone? About 5 to 10 thousand years! Can you imagine what their credit card bills must look like by now??
Actually, no one is sure why armadillos lived in America for millions of years and then disappeared for a couple thousand years. Armadillos have a poor ability to adapt to cold, so one theory might be that changing weather patterns wiped them out.
What is understood is that armadillos began returning to the United States during the mid 1800's, and didn't make it all the way back to Florida until the 1970's.
These returning armadillos met up with the many descendants of a few armadillos that had apparently escaped from captivity in Cocoa Beach during the 1920's. No, that's not a set up for a quip, that's really what the experts say probably happened.
So, one amazing armadillo fact is that, as ancient as they look, Florida armadillos are very recent arrivals to the state, just like most of the rest of us.
Escaped convicts and tourists.
No wonder armadillos don't get no respect.
It's also interesting to learn how armadillos travel. No, armor plated armadillos don't fly, it's not that interesting.
You see, these little creatures can hold their breath for as long as six minutes. So when they encounter a water body they often just hold their breath and walk across the bottom of the pond or stream.
If the water body is too wide to walk under, they gulp air into their stomachs and intestines, make themselves lighter than water, and float across on the surface. After turning themselves into an inflatable raft it takes the armadillo several hours to release all the excess air from it's body.
It's comforting to know that somewhere in the world top scientists are finally seriously studying the incredible phenomena of farting armadillos. Your tax dollars at work!
Not only that, you can finally (FINALLY!) peek in to the previously hidden secret burrow and learn all about the wild sex lives of armadillos. You definitely want that, right?
While we're all overcoming our embarrassment, what we can tell you is that armadillos do have an interesting family life.
The nine banded armadillo, the kind we have here in Florida, is one of the only mammals that almost always has 4 identical babies of the same sex. Closely related armadillo species in South America are the only other mammals that give birth this way.
Armadillo babies (more properly called pups) are just as ugly and stupid looking as their parents, except that they are pink colored and all slimy and stuff, which I suppose must make them oooh, wook at da widdle pupsie wabie babies, dey so veery cute!
Eleanor Storrs, a research scientist, explains her experiences raising armadillos in her interesting and informative article The Astonishing Armadillo, which was published in National Geographic.
She reports that although armadillos generally do poorly in captivity, and make lousy house pets, and are fairly smelly, they were easily house trained and never attempted to bite.
She tells a humous story of how her armadillos were nice and quiet during the day, but at night all hell would break loose and "she knocked over chairs, upended waste baskets, and slammed into anything that would make noise.
In other words, careful research has now determined that armadillos are born directly into the teenage stage of their lifecyle.
So OK, running down to the Humane Society to get a cuddly armadillo for your kids seems like not such a good idea.
But maybe you're thinking, "Well OK then, but can I eat them instead?"
Actually, a lot of people do eat armadillos. In South America some people keep a number of armadillos around as edible house pets. Nope, I didn't make that up. I read it on Armadillo Online by Joshua Nixon, who appears to be the Net's leading authority on armadillos.
Joshua is working towards a PHD in Zoology at Michigan State University, and has prepared an excellent armadillo reference that offers quite a bit of really solid information, and a more intelligent sense of humor than you've found here.
Joshua tells us that during the Great Depression of the 1930's poor people sometimes ate armadillos, and called them "Hoover dogs" to express their unhappiness with the President in office when the Depression began.
Eleanor Storrs, the scientist we mentioned above, reports that armadillo tastes like "high quality pork".
Now that we've got you all worked up thinking about what to cook for dinner, it's time to talk about road kill.
Yes, armadillos will eat dead animals along the side of the road. Think about that as you're telling your friends about how that exotic armadillo dinner you had while on vacation in Mexico tasted just like pork.
We can't blame the armadillo for this. A guy's gotta make a living somehow. No, eating roadkill is not the dumb armadillo trick.
Becoming roadkill, in a uniquely stupid way, that's the armadillo's special talent.
You see, armadillos usually do their foraging at night, when of course it's hard for drivers to see them.
And a foraging armadillo is a very focused and intent little guy, who may not see the oncoming car until it's right upon them.
But when the armadillo does finally realize that a car is going by right over head, they jump straight up into the air, pretty much guaranteeing that they will be hit by some part of the passing car.
And then the next armadillo comes along and says, "Hey, it tastes just like pork!"
As if jumping up into car bumpers wasn't dumb enough, it is also reported that armadillos in Texas and Louisiana love to eat fire ants.
In fact, The Astonishing Armadillo article reports that one researcher found "ten tarantulas, a scorpion, a small snake and a toad" in an armadillo's stomach. Ya want some hot sauce with that?
Armadillos As Super Heros
We've given our little friend Andy Armadillo kind of a ruthless ribbing here so far, but now it's time to get serious (really) and explain the great gift that the armadillo has given to mankind. We'll cut out all the stupid armadillo jokes and show the armadillo for the hero he really is.
Luckily for us, most westerners think of leprosy as a disease that burdened man in biblical times. Regrettably, leprosy is still afflicting millions of people today in developing countries around the world.
Eleanor Storrs, in her article The Astonishing Armadillo, explains that the agent that causes leprosy was discovered over a hundred years ago, but it was difficult to study this agent because it couldn't be grown in a test tube. Thus research on controlling leprosy fell behind advancements on other diseases.
Unfortunately for them, armadillos are susceptible to fatal forms of leprosy, probably because they have a lower body temperature than humans. Armadillos don't get human forms of leprosy and as of the writing of Eleanor's article (published in National Geographic June 1982) Florida armadillos did not seem to have the disease.
Joshua Nixon's Armadillo Online tells us that the only times leprosy has been passed from armadillos to humans were in a few cases where somebody ate undercooked armadillo meat.
While this substance used to be rare, now it's known that even one seriously infected armadillo can produce enough lepromin for all the human cases in the world.
That's amazing, isn't it?
Apparently this new abundant source of lepromin has greatly accelerated research into a leprosy vaccine.
This concludes our article about that lovable underdog, the armadillo. We hope you enjoyed it.
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