The Nature Writers of Texas

The best nature writing from the newspaper, magazine, blog and book authors of the Lone Star State . . .

Monday, July 07, 2003

Armadillos, Our Little Armored Tanks
Ro Wauer, July 7, 2003, The Victoria Advocate, © 2003

This strange creature is commonplace through South Texas, but I only occasionally find one in my yard. But last week one spent a good part of a day "bull-dozing" about the shrubbery. And it seemed oblivious to my presence, letting me get within eight or ten feet without seeming to even notice me. Because of its apparent ignorance of my presence I was able to study its appearance and behavior for an hour or more.

What a strange mammal it is! There is nothing at all even casually like the armadillo in Texas. It is a wonder how nature created such as well armored creature. Its entire upper body, as well as its head and tail, are covered with rows of leathery plates that are able to slide on one another. Hard and stiff, the plates are jointed across the back so that it can curl itself into a hard tough ball with the shell of the outside and the head and feet tucked in out of harm's way.

Its feet and claws are powerful looking. And it has degenerate teeth, no incisors or canines but seven small peglike teeth of each side of each jaw. As a nonaggressive creature, it depends more upon scent than sight for finding food. But maybe its tough snout is most impressive. That is what it uses to search for food, pushing into the soil like a plow. My armadillo wandered about with its snout seldom above ground level. And when it found something at a deeper level, it was able to swiftly dig into the rocky soil for whatever it had found.

Armadillo diet consists mostly of ants, termites, and other insects, but they will eat a variety of small animals as well as carrion, some fruit, fungus, and a few plants. William Davis, in The Mammals of Texas, reports that a study of 800 armadillo stomachs revealed 488 different food items, 93 percent of which were animal matter: 28 percent was larval and adult beetles, 14 percent termites and ants, 8 percent caterpillars, and the remaining included earthworms, millipedes, centipedes, and crayfish. Bird eggs were found in only 5 of 281 stomachs.

When not searching for food, armadillos utilize dens 2 to 15 feet long in rocky or soft terrain. Nest chambers, constructed at the end of burrows, are 18 inches or more in diameter and stuffed with dried grasses, leaves, and other plant materials. They simply push themselves in and out each time they use the chamber. Four youngsters are born from February to April, following a gestation period of about 150 days. The babies are identical to the adults without their hardened shells; the shell doesn't harden until they are almost full-grown. They very soon are able to follow mother like a flock of little piglets. She nurses them for nearly two months; she has four teats, so nobody goes hungry.

Armadillos regularly visit water areas to drink and also to take mud baths. They can swim very well, although they ride low in the water due to their specific gravity. However, when necessary they can ingest air to inflate themselves to increase their buoyancy. But when small streams are encountered, they may simply walk across the bottom, emerging on the opposite side.

Texans usually take armadillos for granted due to their abundance, but visitors to Texas are often anxious to see one of these odd creatures. When the Spaniards first saw our armadillo they called it "little armored one," or armadillo. Locally it is sometimes known as "poverty pig" or "poor man's pig," as it is sometimes used for food. Its flesh is delicate light, and tender, and when cooked properly, somewhat like pork in texture and taste.

The Maya Indians believed that the black vulture turned into an armadillo in old age. The Mayans claimed that aging vultures gradually lost their wings and feathers. They would then enter a hole and start life anew as an armadillo. For proof of this belief, they pointed out the similarity between the bald head of the vulture and that of the armadillo. It makes a good story, but we know better!

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