If you have ever driven through Texas, Louisiana, Florida or one of the other southeastern U.S. states, you may have seen an odd looking animal along the roadside. If this odd looking animal had a tail like a rat, ears like a donkey, eyes like a pig, and bands of armor plating that looked like some type of army tank, you were looking at an armadillo.
The name armadillo is a Spanish word meaning “little armored one”. Since it is a Spanish word, the proper way to pronounce it is “ar-ma-dee-yo”.
In the United States, we have the nine-banded armadillo. The adults are about 2 feet long and stand about 10 inches tall, and can weigh up to 20 pounds. They are nocturnal animals that spend their days sleeping in burrows that they dig into the ground. The burrows are about 8-10 inches across at the opening and may be as long as 25 feet, reaching depths of 7-10 feet. One armadillo can keep up to 12 burrows in its territory. They can live up to 15 years in the wild.
Armadillos are classified among a group of peculiar animals called Edentata. Other members of this group include ant-eaters and sloths. Although Edentata means toothless, armadillos have 32 teeth. Their teeth are cylindrical in shape and grow constantly and would soon become problems if they were not worn down by the things they eat. What they eat are mostly ants, termites and grubs that they dig out of the ground with their strong sharp claws. You wouldn’t think that insects and worms would be the type of food to keep their teeth worn down to the right size and you would be right. Along with the diet of bugs and worms, the armadillo will eat dead animals (carrion), small mammals it catches, reptiles, birds and eggs. Additionally, they have developed a taste for a variety of crops grown by farmers such as peanuts, melons and tomatoes. Between the plants the armadillo eats and the dirt and grit it takes in while collecting ants and termites in its sticky saliva, there is enough hard and coarse material to constantly wear down the teeth, keeping them just the right size. It seems that the armadillo’s teeth were specially designed just for the armadillo’s special way of eating.
One characteristic that is common to armadillos and the other Edentatas are special structures known as xenarthrales. This is a very fancy name for unique extra movable parts that are located between the vertebrae in the lower back. These parts add extra strength and flexibility to the spine of the armadillos that allows them to bend and dig fast when going after ants and termites. Animals that have xenarthrales are referred to as Xenarthra (zee-narth-ra).
The most obvious special feature of armadillos is there armor like skin. They have a thick tough leathery shield called a carapace, kind of like a turtle’s shell, that protects its shoulders and rear end. Its vertebrae are specially modified to attach to the underside of the protective armor. In the middle, the armor forms bands that are attached by thick leathery skin that allows for flexibility. The protective plating even covers the rat-like tail of the armadillo. The only part not protected is it’s under belly. However, when the armadillo feels threatened, it simply curls up in a ball that hides and protects its head and under belly.
Another defense mechanism is their ability to jump. Armadillos can jump 3-4 feet straight into the air. While this helps them escape some dangers like predators and snakes, it also has its negative side. When crossing a road at night time, they have a tendency to jump straight up in the air when a vehicle approaches. Consequently, they collide with the front of vehicle and have been known to cause extensive damage to the grill and radiator. When this happens, the car becomes undriveable, often stranding the motorist on the road at night time.
Originally, armadillos were only found in Central and South America. It is believed that around 1880, several of them migrated from Mexico into Texas by crossing the Rio Grande River. When you look at an armadillo with its heavy looking armor, it looks like it would be too heavy to swim across a river and normally it is. However, the armadillo overcomes that by swallowing enough air to fill its stomach and intestines. This extra air in its body makes it buoyant enough to float, allowing it to swim across the river. I wonder how the armadillo learned to swallow air (not breath the air but swallow it like your little brother does to make himself belch loudly) to make it able to float on top of the water allowing it to swim across a river? And if the armadillo finds a smaller stream in its path, it simply holds its breath and walks across the bottom of the stream to the other side. They can hold their breath for up to 6 minutes.
Armadillos in the Northern Hemisphere mate in late summer and the females produce a single fertilized egg or zygote. Depending upon the climate and available food, the female can carry the egg for up to 3-4 months before it implants or attaches itself in the womb. The zygote will then start to develop and during that development, will split into 4 identical embryos. Four months later, the female will give birth to quadruplets, who will stay in the burrow for the first several months, living on their mother’s milk. Between ages 6 months to 1 year, the young armadillos leave home and start life on their own.
Armadillos live in warm climates. In the United States, their territory ranges from Texas to Florida and as far north of Missouri and Tennessee. Like many animals that live in warm climates, they are extremely sensitive to cold weather. In mammals, the blood that leaves the heart in arteries is the warmest blood. As the blood reaches the arms and legs, some of the heat is lost. The colder blood then returns to the heart through the veins, cooling off the body. In colder weather, the blood loses a large amount of heat in the arms and legs and can cool off the body too much and since the news this morning said that there is snow on the ground from Texas to Florida, this definitely affects the armadillos as well. Fortunately, they have a network of blood vessels called a “retia mirabilia” or “wonderful net” that helps them stay warm. The wonderful net is a sophisticated heat exchange system that keeps most of their body heat centralized in the trunk of their body. In the wonderful net the arteries and veins lie next to each other. Some of the heat from the arteries transfers to the veins besides them, heating up the blood returning to the heart. This heat exchange system keeps most of the body heat inside the body, helping the armadillo survive the spells of colder weather.
Not only are armadillos odd looking animals, they are amazingly designed to survive in their environment. The list of the armadillo’s special features includes:
- Teeth that continually grow
- Armor plating
- Xenarthrales in the spine to allow strength and flexibility
- Ability to curl up in a protective ball
- Sharp claws for fast digging
- Sticky saliva and tongue to eating ants and termites
- Ability to swallow air to make it buoyant enough to swim
- Ability to hold its breath and walk across the bottom of streams
- Ability to carry fertilized eggs for several months before implanting in womb
- Always producing 4 identical babies
- Wonderful net circulatory heat exchange system
There is no way possible for all of these unique features to have evolved over millions of years. It’s obvious that the armadillo was originally designed by an intelligent Creator God. I recall an old friend of my grandfather that referred to armadillos as “God’s little tanks”. Now that I see how wonderfully designed they are, I think “God’s little tank” is a fitting name for the amazing armored armadillo.