Stolen: The ancient armadillo
On the road to Amarillo we saw two armadillo. They were four feet to the sky by the side of the road. We were on our way home to snowy Summit County from our recent trip to Texas to look for open water to row, some warm weather, and green trees. Armadillos get hit by cars often because armadillos will eat road kill – and animals that eat road kill often become road kill themselves. Armadillos are nocturnal and hard to see by the side of the road at night, and armadillos jump up in the air when they feel threatened. This might startle a predator, but doesn’t usually startle a vehicle or driver and they just end up jumping right into the car, with deadly results.
We don’t have armadillo in Summit County because it is too cold. In the US, armadillos can be found all over the southeast. They are not currently found west of the Rockies, and the northernmost places that armadillos range are Nebraska the southern tip of Indiana. In many areas of Central and South America, armadillo meat is often eaten. During the Depression in the US, armadillos were eaten and they were called “Hoover hogs” by people angry with President Herbert Hoover’s broken promise of a chicken in every pot. The meat is said to taste like fine-grained, high-quality pork.
The nine-banded armadillo is the only species that inhabits the southern portion of the United States. They look prehistoric and they are! The Spanish name armadillo, which means “little armored one,” originated from the Spanish conquistadors, who encountered them in the New World. The closest relatives of the armadillo are sloths and anteaters. They first evolved around 50 million years ago, in South America.
The body length ranges from 15 to 17 inches, the tail is 14 to 16 inches long and they weigh between 8 and 17 pounds. The shell is made up of thin bone plates, known as scutes and is the only mammal that has bone plates in its skin. Scutes as old as 40,000 years have been found in North America, around Illinois. About 75 percent of their total diet consists of insects, but it will eat other small reptiles, amphibians, and even dead birds. It is thought that the nine-banded armadillo arrived in Texas by crossing the Rio Grande in the mid-19th century. They don’t actually swim, but can float by gulping air into their stomachs and intestines. If the body of water is shallow enough, they can walk across the bottom by holding its breath for up to five minutes
The nine-banded armadillo nearly always gives birth to four identical pups. They form from the same egg, share the same placenta during development, and are all the same sex. This regular production of genetically identical offspring is known as “polyembryony.” The identical quadruplets make armadillos valuable to medical researchers as an animal model for multiple births.
Scientists use the armadillo for studying and growing the leprosy bacteria, which does not grow in normal bacterial cultures. Leprosy usually affects the cooler extremities of the human body (hands, ears, nose) and it is thought that they can carry it because of their lower body temperature of 90 °F, and they are relatively long-lived, which gives the slow-developing disease a chance to grow. Researchers collected the animals in the 1960s, guessing that they’d be good test subjects to introduce the disease to, only to find that many armadillos already had leprosy. Contracting leprosy from wild armadillos is not a common occurrence. The few instances of humans contracting leprosy from armadillos involve people who have eaten undercooked armadillo meat.
So there are many very interesting factoids about this fascinating, prehistoric creature the armadillo – especially the association with leprosy, an ancient disease from mediaeval times. My first encounter with armadillo was the road to Amarillo.
Breckenridge resident Dr. Joanne Stolen is a former professor of microbiology from Rutgers now teaching classes at CMC. Her scientific interests are in emerging infectious diseases and environmental pollution.
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