Organic Speed Bumpby
C. F. Eckhardt
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
courtesy Dove Key Ranch Wildlife Rehabilitation|
the armadillo is common all across Central
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.”