Armadillos are small to medium-sized mammals with a leathery armoured shell. The Spanish word armadillo means ‘little armoured one’. They are the only living mammals that wear such shells. Closely related to anteaters and sloths they generally have a pointy or shovel-shaped snout and small eyes. They live in temperate and warm habitats including rainforests, grasslands and semi-deserts. There are approximately 20 species of armadillo, some of which are distinguished by the number of bands on their armour. Many species use their sharp claws to dig for food, such as grubs, insects, termites, beetles and to dig dens.
Their average length is approximately 75cm including the tail. The giant armadillo which can be the size of a small pig grows up to 150cm and weighs up to 59kg and they are prolific diggers. While the pink fairy armadillo is a diminutive species with an overall length of just 15cm. They have a black, red, grey or yellowish colouring. They originated in South America and were confined there until the formation of the Isthmus of Panama which allowed a few species to migrate northward into North America. They are particularly diverse in Paraguay (where 11 species exist) and surrounding countries. Two species, the northern naked-tailed and nine-banded armadillo are found in Central America. The nine-banded armadillo prefer to build burrows in moist soil near the creeks, streams and arroyos around which it lives and feeds.
The armour is formed by plates of dermal bone covered in relatively small, overlapping epidermal scales called ‘scutes’. Most species have rigid shields over the shoulders and hips, with a number of bands separated by flexible skin covering the back and flanks. Additional armour covers the top of the head, the upper parts of the limbs and the tail. The underside of the animal is never armoured and is simply covered with soft skin and fur. They tend to escape predators by fleeing into thorny patches (from which their armour protects them) or digging to safety. They also have the habit of jumping three to four feet vertically when startled which results in them colliding with the underside of vehicles.
Only the three-banded armadillos are able to curl their head and back feet and contort its shell into a hard ball. They have short legs but can move quite quickly and have the ability to remain under water for up to 6 minutes. Because of the density of its armour, it will sink in water unless it swallows air, and inflates its stomach which raises its buoyancy so it can swim across streams. They have very poor eyesight and use their excellent sense of smell and long claws to dig and hunt for food. They also have long sticky tongues for extracting ants and termites from their tunnels. Many species give birth to four identical quadruplets and litter sizes range from one to eight. The young are born with soft leathery skin which hardens within a few weeks. They are solitary animals that do not share their burrows with other adults. They sleep up to 16 hours per day.
Because of their low metabolic rate and lack of fat stores, cold is their enemy and spates of intemperate weather can wipe out whole populations. Population numbers of nearly all species are threatened by habitat loss and over-hunting. Many species are endangered.
Director Sunvil Traveller