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Armadillos

There are 20 recognized species of armadillo found in warm grassland and open forests from southern United States through most of South America. Armadillos can't live anywhere it's cold or dry because they have slow metabolisms and are not well insulated by fat. This makes them particularly susceptible to heat and water loss. The only species found in the United States is the nine-banded armadillo. The nine-banded also lives in Latin America, where the other 19 species can also be found.

Armadillo is a Spanish one that means "little armored one". The armadillo is the only mammal that has over 2,000 large, solid plates of skin-covered bones that cover its back, head, legs and tail. These plates are connected by overlapping bands that encircle the armadillo's body, allowing it to bend. But, it is not very flexible. Most armadillos have pointy or shovel-shaped snouts, small eyes, strong legs and huge front claws that are ideal for digging.

Armadillos range greatly in size and color. The smallest species, the pink fairy armadillo, from the plains of western Argentina, measures only about 6 inches (15 cm) in length and weighs just 3 ounces. The largest species, the giant armadillo, found in the eastern part of South America, measures up to 5 feet (1.5 m) long and weighs up to 130 pounds. The pink fairy armadillo is salmon-colored, while other species of armadillo are black, red, grey or yellowish in color.

Armadillos are not rodents or marsupials. They are not related to the opossum in any way. They actually are closely related to sloths and anteaters. The ironic thing is that armadillos are classified as toothless animals (Edentalas), even though some species have as many as 90-100 teeth. But, unlike other mammals, armadillos do not have tooth enamel, so they don't have very strong teeth.

Most armadillos dig burrows and sleep up to 16 hours per day. They do their foraging early in the morning and in the evening. Armadillos have very poor eyesight but very keen noses and long, sticky tongues that they use to extract ants and termites from their tunnels. In addition to beetles ants, termites and other insects, armadillos eat worms, grubworms, spiders, snails, small mammals, baby birds, eggs, plants and some fruit as well as some carrion (dead animals). Because armadillos eat carrion, armadillos are frequently hit by cars. The fact that they are also nocturnal also makes it hard for motorists to see them.

A common myth is that all armadillos roll themselves up in a ball to protect themselves from predators. This is not true. Only the three-banded armadillo can curl its head and back feet and contort its shell into a hard ball. All other species have to resort to other means of protecting themselves against predators.

Pink fairy armadillos will block the opening of its den with its blunt, scaly rear. The pichi armadillo wedges itself into its shallow burrow, making it hard for predators to drag it out because of its jagged scales. The nine-banded armadillo will startle its predator by jumping straight up into the air. It may also dig or enter an existing burrow, or press its unprotected belly against the ground with its legs tucked under its armor. Some species of armadillo protect themselves by digging new tunnels into which they vanish. Others run into thorny bushes and rely on the thorns and their armor to protect themselves from the predators or roll up partially to protect their vulnerable soft bellies.

Female armadillos gestate for about 150 days and give birth to fully-formed pups. The pups are born with their eyes open and take their first unsteady steps within a few hours after birth. Their skin is soft and leathery and hardens with age. Their leathery skin is fully hardened at 2 years of age.

Most species of armadillos are threatened by habitat loss and over-hunting. Many people in Central and South America eat armadillos because they taste like high quality pork. The only population of armadillos that is expanding is the nine-banded armadillo.

The 20 Recognized Species of Armadillo

  • Six Species of Genus Dasypus (Nine-Banded Armadillo), which includes Seven-Banded and Long-nosed Armadillos
  • One Species of Genus Priodontes (Giant Armadillo)
  • Three Species of Genus Chaetophractus (Hairy Armadillo)
  • One Species of Genus Euphractus (Six-banded Armadillo)
  • One Species of Genus Chlamyphorus (Pink Fairy Armadillo)
  • One Species of Genus Calytophractus (Greater Fairy Armadillo)
  • Two Species of Genus Tolypeutes (Three-Banded Armadillo)
  • Four Species of Genus Cabassous (Naked-tailed Armadillo)
  • One Species of Genus Zaedyus (Pichi or Dwarf Armadillo)
  • Fun Armadillo Facts

    The nine-banded armadillo is the only species that can swim. They may even hold their breath and walk along the bottom when crossing streams. They can hold their breath for up to 6 minutes.

    The nine-banded armadillo always gives birth to four identical young that develop from the same egg and share the same placenta. These offspring are also all the same sex. But occasionally, they'll give birth to three or five pups--all still genetically identical. The regular production of genetically idential offspring is known as "polyembryony". The nine-banded armadillos are the only mammals known to do this. All other armadillos only produce one offspring per fertilized egg.

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