Tiny Tanks

By Jill Pritchard | May 1, 2021
From Missouri Conservationist: May 2021
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9-Banded Armadillo
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Tiny Tanks
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Believe it or not, there once was a time when nine-banded armadillos didn’t exist in Missouri. Now they’re spotted in most places across the state — just not alive. These mammals have many monikers, the most fitting perhaps is “Texas speedbump” due to their unfortunate fate of being hit by cars. Another common nickname is “pocket dinosaur” because of their odd, Jurassic-like appearance, which should have made them a front-runner for a role in Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster. But whatever you call them, nine-banded armadillos are bizarre members of Missouri’s wildlife.

Little Armored One

With their strange armored bodies, armadillos resemble more of a worn-out football than your typical wildlife. Did you know their closest living relatives are sloths and anteaters? Pretty odd for the only living mammals that wear shells. Armadillo is Spanish for “little armored one.” They get that name from the nine moveable “bands” in their midsection, but not all nine-banded armadillos actually have that many bands. Many believe these animals roll up like a roly-poly when they’re scared. But only the three-banded armadillo, which solely resides in South America, can roll up into a ball.

An armadillo’s armor isn’t bulletproof, despite legend to the contrary. In fact, their “armored” plates are covered by a layer of keratin, the same protein that is found in hair and nails.

These tiny tanks can weigh up to 15 pounds. They only have hair between hardened plates of skin that encompass their body, as well as their head, legs, and tail. Their head, short legs, and tail are also covered with plates. Their toes have well-developed claws that make great tools for digging.

“The nine-banded armadillo cannot be confused with any other mammal in Missouri,” noted MDC Urban Wildlife Biologist Erin Shank. “They have many odd habits and behaviors that just leave you scratching your head.”

Armadillos Got Talent

One of those odd behaviors is what commonly leads to an armadillo’s demise. This species can jump straight up into the air, as high as 3 feet, when it’s scared. Considering how short an armadillo’s legs are, this skill is impressive.

“An armadillo jumps into the air to scare away predators,” Shank explained. “This usually startles the predator long enough for the armadillo to make a quick getaway. Unfortunately, this same tactic doesn’t have the best success rate when an armadillo is crossing the street. That’s why you see so many dead armadillos on the side of the road.”

In addition to their tendency to imitate a Mexican jumping bean, armadillos have another odd talent — swimming.

“Armadillos can actually swim and float across bodies of water by gulping air into their intestines to make themselves more buoyant,” explained Shank. “They can even hold their breath for up to five minutes and float across bodies of water, or they can sink to the bottom like a rock and just walk across the bottom. It’s possible that their ability to swim has allowed them to expand to new areas and establish new territory.”

Crossing the Border

So, how did these tiny tanks come to Missouri? These critters first moved into the United States in the 1850s from Mexico. They entered Texas and have been expanding north ever since. Their range is thought to be limited by extreme cold, but armadillos have been popping up farther and farther north.

“One hundred and fifty years ago, you really didn’t see armadillos north of the Rio Grande River,” Shank noted. “But because of large-scale landscape changes and conversion to agriculture, they have been able to expand their range. And they’re not done. It is very feasible to think that armadillos could move as far north as New York or as far west as Nebraska.”

Although armadillos didn’t always reside in Missouri, they are now considered a “native” species because they migrated here on their own, rather than being introduced to the region. And with their unique lifecycle, armadillos are permanent residents of the Show-Me state. Their breeding season begins in the summer, followed by a two to three month delay when the embryo divides into four cells before each one implants in the uterus.

“This results in four identical offspring,” said Shank. “After four months implantation, the quadruplets are born with no shell around early-to-mid-spring. Young are weaned around 3 months old and become mature around 12–15 months. One fascinating thing about their reproduction cycle is that a mother can actually delay the development of the young in the uterus for up to a year if conditions aren’t favorable for bearing young.”

Their lifespan of up to 20 years, coupled with their reproductive success, means that it only takes a small number of armadillos to establish populations in new areas. Ever wanted to age an armadillo? Check out their coloring. Younger adults are tan-gray with pink highlights. Older armadillos have a gray coloring.

Sustenance and Surroundings

Though the nine-banded armadillo is commonly seen laying on the side of the road, live armadillos prefer to roam in forests or grassland habitats. They seem to like oak-hickory or shortleaf pine forests. Because they dig burrows in the ground, they select wooded bottomlands, brushy areas, and fields with ground cover and loose soil.

What does one of Missouri’s weirdest-looking mammals eat? Mostly insects, such as ants, beetles, and flies. They can smell beetles, larvae, and ants up to 6 inches underground. They are also known to consume earthworms and the occasional reptile, as well as fungi and fruit.

Armadillos don’t have the best eyesight, so they hold their long snout close to the ground to sniff out their grub. Their sharp claws dig to expose the food, which is then flicked into their mouth using their long, sticky tongue. A nine-banded armadillo can slurp up thousands of ants for one meal using their tongue. But in their hunt for dinner, armadillos can wreak their fair share of havoc on lawns and gardens. Excavating burrows to bear their young can also lead to conflicts with property owners.

“There’s no hunting or trapping season for armadillos,” explained MDC Wildlife Damage Biologist Jim Braithwait. “But, the Wildlife Code of Missouri specifies that damage-causing armadillos may be trapped or shot to prevent further destruction.”

Dealing with Annoying Armadillos

Braithwait is one of six wildlife damage biologists employed by MDC. Their job is to help Missourians with controlling nuisance and unwanted wildlife. Out of the six wildlife damage biologists, Braithwait has dealt with the most calls concerning armadillos.

“I think I’ve been dealing with them since they migrated here,” laughed Braithwait. “I’ve responded to well over 100 nuisance calls. Many people are surprised at just how much damage they can do by digging and rooting around in the ground. Most calls I receive, people think they’re dealing with something else. They’re surprised when I tell them they’ve got an armadillo issue.”

Braithwait said armadillo nuisance issues begin in March as the weather warms up and they become active. He notes that a freshly watered lawn can be what attracts armadillos to a property.

“When you water your garden or your lawn, it attracts all the insects, grubs, and worms,” said Braithwait. “And those grubs are mainly what armadillos feed on. So, they come onto the property and sniff out their food, but in doing so, they’re digging holes and causing some damage. So, one thing I tell a lot of people is just lay off watering their lawn for a few days.”

If turning off the hose still doesn’t solve the problem, Braithwait recommends using “seasoned” traps. But we’re not talking about traps that have been salt-and-peppered.

“Metal traps can work, but we have seasoned traps we lend out to land or property owners that work extremely well,” he explained. “The seasoned traps are big wooden box traps about the size for a raccoon that hold scent. I believe they work so well because armadillos are so driven by scent. And the more these wooden traps catch armadillos, the stronger the scent gets in the traps. I’ll have the property owner place the trap in the area the armadillo has been working, and by morning, they’ve usually been trapped.”

Braithwait strongly encourages residents to handle armadillos as little as possible, and discourages relocating them.

“It’s probably best not to relocate them, especially on public areas,” he said. “You’re taking a chance of moving an animal that might have disease and just moving a problem to a different area. But if you do have to handle them, just be cautious and wear gloves.”

Armadillos and Leprosy: The Facts

One of those diseases armadillos carry is Hansen’s disease, the bacteria that causes leprosy. This condition can lead to disfigurement and nerve damage. Armadillos are used in leprosy research because their body temperatures are low enough for them to contract the most virulent form of the disease. They also do not have a very strong immune system, making them an ideal model for many types of medical research.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it may be possible that armadillos can transmit leprosy to humans, but the risk is very low and those who come into contact with the animals are unlikely to become infected.

There have been no armadillo-transmitted leprosy cases in Missouri.

With the nine-banded armadillo’s expansion and reproductive rate, it’s safe to say they’re here to stay in Missouri. Just be sure to keep an eye out on the roads this summer!

For more information on the nine-banded armadillo, visit MDC’s online Field Guide at mdc.mo.gov.

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