It may be small-brained and shortsighted, but the armadillo has managed to take over most of the Americas.
Only one armadillo showed up for this year’s “World Famous Armadillo Festival” in Hamburg, Ark., and it couldn’t have cared less.
After a ceremonial weigh-in and photo shoot with the reigning Teen Miss Armadillo (a local high school beauty), the creature was released in the designated “racetrack” — a makeshift chicken wire enclosure — where it immediately began to nose around for bugs and grubs.
Hamburg, about 20 miles from the Louisiana border, has held an armadillo festival each May for four decades. It’s a typical small-town affair — music, contests, carnival rides, lawn mower racing, cotton candy, beauty queens — but if your goal is see armadillos, best to skip the trip. Some years there hasn’t been a single entry. This year’s unlucky contestant, apparently a slacker that couldn’t get away, was nabbed in a carport by an area resident who said, after the “race,” she hoped festival organizers would rid her of her critter.
Hamburgers can be forgiven if they’ve grown ambivalent about armadillos – there are so many around these days they’ve long lost their novelty.
As ubiquitous as armadillos are now — some estimates put their number as high as 50 million in the United States — most people know them primarily as roadkill. With distinctive armor that looks like a turtle’s shell and a tendency to greet their maker on their backs — legs akimbo, seemingly asleep — there’s no confusing these bizarre mammals with, say, dead squirrels or raccoons.
Armadillos don’t do well on highways. Dimwitted and shortsighted, they wander across the pavement — sometimes to feed on carrion, sometimes to get the other side — and tend not to notice a vehicle barreling down on them until it’s too late. It doesn’t help that they often jump several feet when startled. It’s an instinct that served the armadillo well when an ocelot was pouncing; it’s not so useful when a tractor-trailer is rumbling overhead — the poor animals get bounced down the highway until they can bounce no more.
Dr. Jack Mayer, a wildlife ecologist at South Carolina’s Savannah River National Laboratory, remembers visiting an armadillo researcher at the Universidad Nacional de Asunción in Paraguay in the late 1970s, where he witnessed jumping armadillos firsthand for the first time.
“He took us into his captive compound… which was almost wall-to-wall armadillos, and all of a sudden these tan volleyballs start going up all over the place,” Mayer recalls. “It was one of the most surrealistic experiences I’ve ever had.”
The world has 21 kinds of armadillos — almost all South American and every one of them surreal.
Take the three-banded armadillo, which, unlike its 20 cousins, can actually roll into a ball. Or the screaming hairy armadillo, which gets its name because, well, it’s kind of hairy and it screams. The pink fairy is about the size of a toilet paper roll; the giant is about a yard long, including its tail.
But the most successful of all is the nine-banded armadillo, the only kind that’s established in the United States.
The nine-banded armadillos spread north into Mexico from Central America hundreds of years ago, but it wasn’t until 1849 that they were first observed north of the Rio Grande River, in what was the new state of Texas. Thirty years later, they’d colonized most of south Texas, and were moving into the Hill Country and other parts of the state, where a few industrious souls turned them into baskets and novelties and sometimes dinner. The ones that survived Texas spilled into Louisiana, Mississippi and southern Arkansas by the early 1920s, and even made appearances in New Mexico and eastern Oklahoma.
But it took human help for the armadillos to make it to Florida. Between 1915 and 1922, a handful of armadillos are believed to have made an escape from zoos or circuses, although one source credits a Marine from Texas who was stationed in Florida during the first World War with bringing and releasing a pair. Once established in the Sunshine State, armadillo offspring started heading north to Georgia and South Carolina.
Sometime in the 1980s, the two armadillo populations — the ones that spread from Texas and the ones from Florida — met up in Alabama or Mississippi. There is no record of that meeting, no golden spike ceremony at Promontory Summit, but the real excitement was happening up north, where the armadillo started showing up in unexpected places.
According to The Amazing Armadillo, from the University of Texas Press, armadillos were living wild in eight states — the five along the Gulf of Mexico, plus Georgia, Arkansas and Oklahoma — at the time of the book’s publication, in 1984. By then, however, they were already slipping across the Missouri border and were occasionally popping up elsewhere — though most of the time, there was a plausible explanation.
Mayer, who studied the spread of the animal through South Carolina, says it wasn’t uncommon for vacationers returning north from Florida to nab an armadillo, maybe as a pet. “About the third time the armadillo relieves itself in the car, Dad says, ‘Get rid of that thing’ — and that’s typically South Carolina,” he says. That’s how he figures the armadillo seen wandering around a motel pool in the mid-1980s in Florence, S.C., where heavily traveled interstates 20 and 95 meet, got there. “Obviously that was an animal that was brought up from further south,” he says.
The sightings, however, became too frequent in some places to discount the possibility that the armadillos were actually the ones responsible for their being there. They’d been seen with increasing regularity in southern Kansas, and even into southeastern Nebraska. By the mid-1990s, they’d spread over much of Missouri below the Missouri River; by 2006, they were digging up gardens in Ladue, an affluent suburb of St. Louis. They were sprouting up in greater numbers in Tennessee and western Kentucky — fishermen captured one swimming the Tennessee River just below Kentucky Dam in 2008. In the past decade, they’ve become established in southern Illinois and southwestern Indiana, and they’ve colonized all but three counties in South Carolina. They’re now in parts of North Carolina, Mayer says, heading for Cape Cod, N.C.
Dr. Joyce Hofmann, a research scientist and mammalogist with the Illinois Natural History Survey, started keeping records of sightings in 2003 in the Land of Lincoln, prompted by a study that documented the animal’s already-dramatic expansion in neighboring Missouri. To get into Illinois, armadillos would have to cross either the Ohio or Mississippi rivers, but that wouldn’t be a problem.
“Armadillos have been known to hitchhike on barges; they’ve been found in train boxcars and even in trucks. And you have people who move them around intentionally, think it’s a joke,” Hoffman says. “I’d like to think at least some of them can actually cross the Mississippi on a bridge or maybe by swimming from island to island — they can swim, they just can’t go very long distances.”
Armadillos, researchers say, can hold their breath up to six minutes, and cross a small body of water underwater, gripping the bottom with their sharp claws. Alternatively, they can swallow air, inflating their stomachs and intestines, and float across. They may not be expert swimmers, but they seem to get around. One armadillo was found seven miles offshore in the Gulf of Mexico, swimming as though it fully expected to make it to Cuba.
But why some armadillos are compelled to migrate and others stay put is unclear. Dr. W. James Loughry and Dr. Colleen M. McDonough, married armadillo experts on the faculty of Georgia’s Valdosta State University, have tracked some population groups, such as the residents of Mississippi’s Yazoo National Wildlife Refuge, for several years. One of the things they’ve found is that armadillos are remarkably asocial — they don’t interact with each other much, spending up to 20 hours asleep in their burrows and up to 90 percent of their waking hours focused on finding food. But they say they’ve clearly noted two sorts of armadillos: some that tend to stick around an area, year after year, and some that just pass through. “We don’t know what determines the difference between staying and going,” Loughry says.
Because the armadillo has a low body temperature, doesn’t hibernate and sleeps in fairly shallow burrows, scientists once assumed that their range was limited by cold weather and that they wouldn’t survive in areas where it snowed. But the animals disproved that theory.
“They keep seeming to surpass that threshold,” Loughry says. “It’s kind of miraculous to me — they seem to be able to handle colder temperatures than people expected.”
This idea that there may be pioneering armadillos and homebody armadillos resonates with Dr. Frank Knight, a biologist at the University of the Ozarks. He and his wife, Amanda Withnell, have raised baby armadillos for two decades, since they moved to the Clarksville area in northwest Arkansas. Each winter, the couple, joined by students and Puddy, their seven-year-old Catahoula leopard dog, jump in their pickup, head for the levee and go looking for armadillos, hoping to capture pregnant females.
Healthy baby armadillos are a hot commodity for researchers for a couple of reasons: The armadillo typically gives birth to identical quadruplets and it’s the only mammal other than man that’s susceptible to Hansen’s Disease, the bacterial infection known as leprosy. It’s leprosy research, being conducted primarily by Dr. Richard Truman at Louisiana State University, that gets most of Knight’s babies these days; this year, Knight delivered nearly three dozen to Baton Rouge.
Knight, who has captured armadillos at home (on the “frontier of the armadillo range”) and also farther South, in the Mississippi Delta region, says there seem to be physical and behavioral differences based on where the creatures live. “They’re much wilder here, and harder to handle and harder to catch,” he says. “And the adults tend to be larger.” The “frontier” armadillos, he suggests, may be a hardier, more adventurous sort than their southern kin.
Knight and Withnell began raising baby armadillos at the suggestion of one of his mentors who wanted to do work on body-temperature regulation. Armadillos were ideal test subjects because the siblings in each litter are genetic matches. The couple found that the existing literature on raising armadillos wasn’t very useful; at first, for example, they couldn’t get mothers to eat and had to experiment until Withnell figured out that adding earthworms made chow tastier. And it also took some experience before they were able to recognize when a mother likely posed a threat to its newborns and the youngsters needed to be separated and tube-fed. Some years proved disappointing; some, like this year, were a surprise: Of 11 pregnant females in 2011, they ended up with nine litters and 33 surviving babies.
When they first started raising them, they remodeled their attached garage to hold them in, but the noisy animals kept them awake. Knight and Withnell now have a separate building — “The Armadillarium,” quips Withnell — to house the animals for about five to six months. Knight’s students are encouraged to do “noninvasive” research on the animals — one, for example, devised a breast pump to research armadillo milk. The student was the first to milk an armadillo, Knight says; he was the first to taste it. (Withnell had a taste, too: “It wasn’t bad. Nice and creamy.”)
Although they’ve been at it for a long time, Knight and Withnell still get a kick out of raising armadillos. “The babies have fun instinctive behaviors,” Knight says. “They’re really fun to watch catching worms when they’re young. They get really excited when they find one — they slurp it down like a thrashing piece of spaghetti.”
Usually by July, though, the fun has subsided. “We get a lot of entertainment out of it — until July. After July it doesn’t matter what they do, it’s not amusing anymore,” Knight says.
That’s the thing about armadillos: They’re fascinating and weird and even iconic. But cuddly and lovable? Not so much.
Loughry, one of the nation’s top armadillo researchers, laughs when asked if he has any affection for armadillos.
“I used to work on prairie dogs,” he says. “Prairie dogs are charismatic. They’re fun. You wouldn’t mind having one around as a pet or having it around the house. I like armadillos, but [as for] whether I’d want to be around them all the time — probably not. They’d don’t have a lot of personality. In a lot of cases, when people study animals they tend to give the animals names. Armadillos don’t inspire that. We just give them numbers — and that seems to suffice.”
Dr. Joshua Nixon, currently a research scientist at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Minneapolis studying obesity, has a slightly different take. Since 1995 — when as an undergrad at Michigan State University, he launched a website devoted exclusively to armadillos — Nixon has been frequently cited in news accounts on all matters armadillo, even though he readily admits he’s an enthusiast, not an expert.
Nixon points out that while the armadillo is a primitive mammal, it has managed to colonize a large chunk of the Americas in a relatively short period of time.
“The success of the armadillo,” he says, “is in some ways a story of obstinance. They might simply be too stubborn to admit that they are outclassed by more advanced mammals, so they carry on in spite of their disadvantages.
“It’s a good lesson for all of us to keep at heart: You needn’t be the best to succeed, you simply need to refuse to give up trying.” — Roland Klose
This story was first published as a web exclusive by American Way magazine on March 1, 2012, but the link was lost after the airline merger.