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 Texas : Features : Columns : "Charley Eckhardt's Texas"

ARMADILLOS

The Organic Speed Bump

by C. F. Eckhardt
This is gonna come as a surprise to a lot of folks, but armadillos are not native to Texas. In fact, the very first armadillo ever identified in the Lone Star State apparently crossed the Rio Grande near Brownsville in 1859. It was captured by a local man, who’d never seen such an animal. Neither had his neighbors. It was so unique that the man put it in a cage inside a tent, fed it lettuce, and charged 5¢ to look at the ‘unique beast.’ It was, in fact, so unique that the advance man for a traveling circus paid the fellow $5,000 in gold to buy it for his show’s menagerie.

The nine-banded armadillo, scientific name dasypus novemcinctus, is native to Central and South America. It apparently meandered its way northward during the 18th and 19th Centuries. The first one we know about showed up near Brownsville in 1859. From there it began to spread. By the 1880s it was common in South, South Central, and Southeast Texas. It appears to have crossed the Sabine sometime in the 1890s, to become common in Louisiana, Arkansas, and eastern Oklahoma by the early 1900s. Today, it’s common all across the American South. However, west of the Nueces and north of about Laredo, you simply don’t find armadillos. True to their jungle heritage from Central America, they simply don’t go into arid or semi-arid areas.
Armadillo and cactus, Teague TX PO mural "Cattle Round-up" detail
Armadillo and Whimsical Cactus
Teague, Texas WPA Mural "Cattle Roundup" detail
TE Photo

Armadillos live on insects and vegetation, but are not averse to stealing ground-nesting birds’ eggs. They have small, peg-like teeth unsuited for much else. They have a keep sense of hearing, but very poor eyesight. They are also very fast on their feet. The average person can’t catch one by running after it. They also have powerful claws. It takes an armadillo only a few moments to dig a hole deep enough to conceal its vulnerable head and belly. Its shell-armored body makes it invulnerable to smaller predators like bobcats, foxes, and coyotes—so long as the predator can’t get to the animal’s unarmored belly. It will also take refuge in pre-dug holes it finds. By digging the claws of all four feet into the walls of the hole, it makes itself almost impossible to pull out by the tail.

Reaching into a hole to pull an armadillo out by the tail is risky. The animal’s shell makes it virtually invulnerable to snakebite, but the hand that grabs the tail isn’t. When an armadillo takes refuge in a hole already inhabited by a rattler or a copperhead, the snake is annoyed by the intrusion. Unable to attack the intruder through the shell, it will take out its annoyance by striking the hand attempting to remove the intruder.

When caught in the open by a predator, an armadillo has a second line of defense. It relies on its hearing to identify the direction and proximity of the predator. As soon as the predator is almost atop the armadillo, the intended prey leaps straight up, sometimes as much as six feet. It lands on its feet and scoots off in a direction either opposite the approach of the predator or at right angles to it. This requires the predator to stop its rush, change direction, identify the new location of the prey, and start the chase over again.

This instinctive behavior, however, has a drawback. An armadillo can’t tell the difference between an approaching coyote and a semi-rig roaring down the highway. Millions of years of evolutionary conditioning cause it to react to the truck just as it would react to a coyote. This explains the armadillo-shaped dents in the radiator shutters of a lot of diesel rigs that frequent roads in armadillo country.

The armadillo has a third defense against predators if there is a fast-flowing stream close by. The shell’s watertight. The armadillo simply jumps into the water, rolls itself on its back, and floats away on the current.

Armadillo meat, when properly prepared, can be very tasty. To say “it tastes a lot like chicken” is perhaps too trite, but during the Great Depression in the 1930s armadillo and dumplings, prepared like chicken and dumplings, was a common dish in much of the rural South. The animals got a nickname at that time—Hoover hogs.

In the 1940s, during WWII, Afrika Korps soldiers captured in the Sahara were kept, by Geneva Conventions, at the same latitude at which they were captured. A lot of them were sent to Camp Maxey, deep in the hardwood and pine forests of East Texas, where almost-daily rain can be common in every month except August. In addition to the shock of transfer—being taken from one of the driest places on earth and placed in what is only about two steps from being a temperate rain forest—they encountered animals they’d never seen before. One of those animals was the armadillo.

The German POWs asked the prison-camp guards what the strange, shelled animals were. The guards, who had been selected from troops from New York and New Jersey—a precaution against the guards, even unintentionally, being able to give the prisoners information that might aid in an escape—had no idea what an armadillo was. They’d never seen the critters, either. The Germans gave them a name that was uniquely German and uniquely descriptive—panzerschwein. Tank pigs.

Armadillo
Photo courtesy Dove Key Ranch Wildlife Rehabilitation
Nine-banded Armadillo
by Bonnie Wroblewski
Today the armadillo is common all across Central and East Texas and in most of the Deep South. They thrive wherever there is sufficient humidity and forage and the temperature doesn’t stay cold for too long.

Contrary to some ‘authorities,’ armadillos do not make good pets. Frankly, they aren’t smart enough to be pets. However, baby armadillos—there are always six in a litter, all the same sex, and they’re pink until their shells harden—are incredibly cute.

They are so common that the sight of a dead armadillo alongside the road is one of the most common sights in armadillo country. That’s why they have their last—and most appropriate—nickname. We call ‘em ‘organic speed bumps.’ “Why does a Texas chicken cross the road? To show armadillos it can be done.”
© C. F. Eckhardt
"Charley Eckhardt's Texas"
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March 12, 2010column

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