The Spanish Conquistadores, who apparently loved wearing armor in the tropical heat, affectionately named the unusual critter they found in Mexico little armored one — or Armadillo. However, the local Aztecs, who had been around this animal a much longer time, knew them as rabbit-turtles.
Camp Salmen’s Nine-banded Armadillos (Dasypus novemcinctus) look like little rambling helmets. Their furry undersides are soft and unprotected but they can curl up (thus the nine segments in their shell) and get a certain amount of protection. This shell is actually more like thick leather and is a little flexible. It does a good job of ignoring insect stings and discouraging predators. They can successfully turn their backs on an attacker when pinned down in their burrows.
I was shocked when I first saw an armadillo in action. From photographs I imagined they were ponderous, lumbering beasts. Instead, they are quick, fidgety hustlers, constantly digging here and there for a tasty morsel. This insectivore has an acute sense of smell and jabs its pointed nose again and again into leaf litter and soil as it claws to find grubs, worms, beetles, eggs or the occasional wiggly lizard. They’ll make a mess of Camp Salmen’s freshly mulched gardens. They can also bust up anthills and use their sticky tongue to lap up ants and termites.
The ancestors of the armadillo were South American, and millions of years ago some evolved to be the size of automobiles. In all, they’ve developed about twenty varieties including the Screaming Hairy Armadillo, the Hairy Long-nosed Armadillo, the five-foot Giant Armadillo and the diminutive (five inch) Pink Fairy Armadillo.
Falling sea level eventually allowed this breed to migrate north through Panama where the Nine-Banded Armadillo became the most successful species. They were known as a strictly Mexican item until they crossed the Rio Grande in the late 1800s and began to rapidly expand their range into the United States. They were still somewhat unusual around here when I was a kid and are now quite commonplace. They are now found across Dixie from the Rockies to the Atlantic and as far north as Kansas.
Unfortunately, people are most familiar with the animal as road-kill. They have a disastrous behavioral trait of jumping a couple of feet straight up when surprised, like when a car is suddenly and successfully steered over them, then they get nailed by the undercarriage.