Armadillos (order Cingulata)

I feel like everybody, at some point, has been interested in armadillos. They are just too funny looking to ignore. Their very existence puts me in a good mood. They have freaking armour. Armour! Like dinosaurs. Except they live here and now. But asides from the obvious ones, there many reasons to like and admire armadillos. Let’s start off with some basics. Armadillos are in the order Cingulata, which is part of a superorder Xenartha, of which sloths and anteaters are a part. So the armadillo’s closest relatives are sloths and anteaters, which isn’t that surprising, since they are all kinda slow-moving mammal types. There are around 20 species in the armadillo family, ranging in size from five inches (pink fairy armadillos) to fifty-nine inches (giant armadillos). I am focussing on the whole family here because I don’t know a whole lot about any one particular species (though most of the fun facts relate to nine-banded armadillos).

What I do know is quite amazing. For example, armadillos are one of the only species in the world that contract and experience leprosy the way we do. One of the reasons for this is that armadillos have a fairly low internal body temperature, which is ideal for the growth of the bacteria that causes leprosy, Mycobacterium leprae. I read that in one of my textbooks on microbial interactions, and just thought it was the coolest thing ever. Out of all the animals on this planet, armadillos get leprosy. Who knew? Armadillos are native to the New World, and there was no leprosy in the Americas until Europeans arrived. So I guess we brought leprosy along with us, and now poor armadillos get it. And they can now give it back to us. Good job, us.

Once I read about leprosy and armadillos, I decided to investigate further. And of course, once I did I found out a whole bunch of other things that were really awesome. I feel like that happens every time I look up any animal. But one cool thing about armadillos, at least those in the genus Dasypus (eg the nine-banded armadillo), is that they give birth to identical quadruplets. Every time. This is the only mammal that does this. Not only is this extraordinary, but also very useful for science. Having four identical subjects minimizes a lot of variation in experiments.

But wait! We’re not done. Armadillos are even more interesting than that. When startled, nine-banded armadillos react by leaping straight in the air, to a height of about three or four feet. This is what it looks like:

Image

Image credit: Bianca Lavies, National Geographic

How funny is that? The sad part is a lot of them get killed by cars, because when people drive over them the armadillos leap in the air and hit the bottom of the car. I don’t really know how useful that strategy is for protection. You might expect armadillos to take the hedgehog route when threatened and roll into a ball, but most armadillos have too many armour plates. Only the three-banded armadillo rolls into a ball, and when it does the protection is almost total. See:

Image

I guess armadillos are nature’s pokéballs.

Although ungainly looking, armadillos can move quickly when they need to. They can even swim (kinda). Actually their armour is too heavy for them to swim, so what they do is inflate their stomach with air, until they are buoyant enough to swim short distances. Armadillos should be very proud of themselves, I think. They have evolved one of the strangest methods of defence, and then had to evolve a whole new set traits just to cope with their heavy armour.

On a final note, remember that project I did on the small Indian mongoose? Well, we had to write three choices down for animals we wanted to study. My first choice was the mongoose, and the second was armadillos. Though I am more than happy to have studied the mongoose, armadillos would have been super fun too. Anyway, now you know lots about armadillos. Hooray!

Cover image source: http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/80beats/2011/04/28/leave-the-armadillos-alone-theyre-the-only-animal-that-can-give-you-leprosy/#.VMaQ_nDF8YI

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