January 12, 2021
When I was driving home yesterday, I saw my very first real armadillo. I need to clarify that statement. I have seen armadillos in the zoo, and I have seen 100’s of dead armadillos along the road, but this one was both free and alive. I found it fitting that the little fellow was crossing a busy stretch of highway with cars whizzing by as it scurried along. By the time I caught up with it, it was moving off onto the shoulder, so I assume it made it all the way across without being hit. From all the dead armadillos I have seen, I would say this one was extremely lucky.
Members of Superorder Xenarthra (sloths, anteaters, and armadillos) originated in South America and migrated into North America across the Panamanian land bridge about 3 million years ago. They all went extinct in North America by around 10,000 years ago. Today, only two armadillo species occur outside of South America, the nine-banded armadillo (Dasypodidae novemcinctus), and the northern naked-tailed armadillo (Cabassous centralis). The centralis ranges from Central America as far north as the extreme southern boundary of Mexico. The nine-banded armadillo has expanded its range northward into the United States over the last 150 years, moving north of the Rio Grande River as far as Missouri. It is still expanding north at a rapid rate.
When I checked online, I found the expanding population is only part of the reason we see so many dead armadillos. Another reason you see dead armadillos on highways is a result of the animals frightened response. When it is scared by a loud noise (like a vehicle whizzing by) it reacts by jumping a few feet off the ground. In its normal habitat this is used to scare off predators. On a highway, its jump puts it about the right height to be hit by the vehicle. Most other small mammals take their chances running between the wheels of threatening vehicles. The odds appear better to run than jump.
Thoughts: While armadillos crossed the Rio Grande on their own, they were introduced into Florida by humans. They are thought to arrive after escaping from a zoo in 1924 and later from a circus in 1932. They have naturalized and are considered a nuisance animal because of their burrowing. Eleanor Storrs became fascinated with the animals during her doctoral studies at the University of Texas. Although she was exploring their unique reproductive behavior, she discovered armadillos and humans both contract Hansen’s Disease (leprosy). Armadillos now play a significant role in researching the disease. In South America they are considered a delicacy and are highly sought after. Armadillos are typical of most lifeforms, seen as both nuisance and valuable at the same time. It all depends on your perspective. Do the work. Follow the science. Change is coming and it starts with you.