Armadillo the most famous non-native Texan

The armadillo is one of the signature animals of Texas. It’s even the official small state mammal, and it’s not even a Texas native!

It came from South America, via Mexico, about one hundred years ago. By the late 1800s, it was living in the Lower Rio Grande Valley. By 1900 the armadillo had moved up into Austin. By the 1930s the entire state, other than far West Texas, was home to the armadillo.

The armadillo has naturally moved into Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Arkansas. Thanks to humans, who carried them over the impenetrable Mississippi River, Florida, Georgia, and Alabama now have their own armadillo populations.

A few factors limit the armadillo from moving into more states – freezing weather or desert conditions (they can’t regulate their body temperature, and don’t hibernate), and hardpacked or rocky soil (they need softer dirt to dig).

Of the 20 living armadillo species, only the Nine-Banded Armadillo lives in the U.S. The other 19 live in Central and South America.

The scientific name for the Nine-Banded Armadillo – Dasypus novemcinctus – is interesting. “Dasypus” comes from the Greek word for “rabbit,” as, apparently, a shell-less armadillo looks like a rabbit (Okay, that’s the interesting part). “Novem” means “nine”, and “cinctus” means “band”, to describe the nine joints in its armor, for the full name of “nine-banded rabbit”.

The Spanish conquistadores had the better word, “armadillo,” which means “little armored one.” Its smooth armor allows it to run through thick underbrush to escape predators.

Except for breeding season, armadillos are solitary creatures. They spend all their time digging for food. They mainly eat insects; using their sharp claws to dig cone-shaped pits they revisit regularly. The armadillo’s nose can sniff out insects six inches underground.

The armadillo concentrates so intensely on hunting insects that it cares not for the racket it makes moving through brush, and may even dig a hole so deep its entire body fits inside. It makes them easy to sneak up on.

It relies on its sense of smell for protection, as its eyesight is horrid. Stay upwind of the armadillo, and it probably won’t know you’re coming. It will stand on its hind legs and sniff the air if it senses danger.

Armadillos live in elaborate burrows with connecting passages and several openings. Breeding burrows have nests filled with leaves and grass. Armadillos breed in July. The young are born the following March. Every female will have quadruplets of the same sex, from the same egg.

The babies look like miniature adults, except with soft, leathery shells. The shell grows with the rest of the body, so won’t harden until the armadillo reaches its adult size. They remain with their mother for three months, and are ready to breed in two years.

Some interesting facts:

• Armadillos can float across water by gulping air into their stomachs and intestines. It takes several hours to get rid of the air afterwards. They can also walk on the bottom, holding their breath for up to five minutes.

• They wallow in muddy places around water like a pig to keep cool.

• And, yes, armadillos can jump three to four feet vertically into the air when startled.

• For reasons I can’t fathom, people eat armadillo meat. However, the meat can have a strong odor due to glands near the animal’s backside. When it struggles, or is excited, it emits even more smell.

• Armadillos carry leprosy, a trait they share with humans. Armadillo leprosy is different from human leprosy; however, humans with extensive handling of the animal have been infected. Because of leprosy, it is illegal to sell live armadillos in Texas.

El Camino Real Master Naturalists:

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