New neighbors in the 'hood?

Sallie Satterthwaite's picture

One afternoon last week when Dave was watering the plants a neighbor called over to tell him that she had seen a strange animal run under our screened porch. By the time he called me to come see, there was a second one, and then a third came out to see or be seen.

Our visitors were about 12 inches long, with a tapering nine-inch tail. I said they wore a pinkish tan colored leathery shell, but Dave saw it as gray-brown. When startled, they pulled their heads back and tucked in, sort of like a turtle. They weren’t afraid of us, continuing to shuffle and snuffle for whatever insects were uncovered by their long pointy noses and oversized front claws. National Geographic sources say this creature can make a straight-up jump of four to five feet and sprint as fast as 10 miles an hour.

They are pretty good swimmers, with the ability to suck in and hold air in their intestines for buoyancy. They can also hold their breath for up to six minutes.

I must say, my previous encounters with this animal were from the front seat of a car doing 70. This was the longest look I’ve ever had, close up. They are, simply stated, one of the ugliest animals with which we share the planet.

Meet your new neighbor, the nine-banded armadillo. Weak eyes and hard of hearing, sleeps 16 hours a day – one source called them “Hillbilly Speed Bumps.”

Let’s dispatch the rabies concern first. Growing up, my parents told us time and time again, if an animal that is usually afraid of people acts odd and comes toward you, it’s time to head the other way. Many mammals harbor rabies, but you’ll be glad to hear that armadillos have been found with rabies only once or twice since they’ve moved into states like Georgia.

The reaction of Fayette County residents is pretty much the same anywhere in the country: Armadillos? No way we’ve got armadillos this far north.

’Fraid so, Bobby Joe.

Their taking up residency here should not be a surprise. Just like humans, they go where the weather suits them and food is plentiful. Their diet is primarily beetles and bugs with a soupcon of carrion if they get lucky. They can’t excavate hard soil, and Georgia’s packed clay soil does apparently slow their progress.

There are 20 or so kinds of armadillos in South America, but only the nine-banded armadillo has made it this far north. A colder climate will also thwart expansion of their territories; their own metabolism is so suppressed it can’t provide heat for more than a few days.

Quick, without reference to any pictures, what is the family to which armadillos belong? I associate them with anteaters, or maybe even ’possums, but what mammal wears a shell and rolls into a ball to protect itself?

He doesn’t, really; sources conflict. But it makes a predator think twice about extricating a rounded shell from a 15-foot long burrow, and then there are those huge front claws. The armadillo’s tunneling, burrowing and feeding habits disrupt landscaping, and he has been blamed for taking chicken eggs.
The only other downer is his association with leprosy, which has transpired mainly in the laboratory.

Medical researchers studying multiple births, organ transplants, birth defects and some diseases find the armadillo interesting because the female delivers four youngsters, all identical – including their gender. She produces only one egg, which divides into four embryos, all male or all female.

The mother can also delay the implantation of the fertilized eggs for as long as two years.

Armadillos are on the menu in Latin America and the southern United States, says one reference. (I’m sure they taste like chicken.)

They were nicknamed “Hoover Hogs” during the Great Depression in the 1920s. President Herbert Hoover had promised “a chicken in every pot” but instead presided over the collapse of the American economy after World War I.

So there you have it. More than you ever wanted to know about armadillos.

Don’t tell me newspapers bring only bad news.