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Wednesday, 18 November 2009 14:11

The Naturalist's Corner

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I wanna go home with the armadillo

When you’re stuck in one place for 12 hours at a time, a lot of weird stuff goes through your head. The other night at work, the refrain, “I wanna go home with the armadillo,” from Texas troubadour Gary P. Nunn’s classic “London Homesick Blues” crept in and would not dislodge.

Twelve hours of “armadillo” brought back lots of Louisiana memories. The little roly-poly, weird looking, armor-plated nine-banded armadillo, Dasypus novemcinctus, was a ubiquitous feature of the landscape of northeast Louisiana where I grew up. It was found from forest to farm and from bayou bank to backyard, much like Western North Carolina’s whistle pig.

At the little tarpaper camp on Horseshoe Lake where much of my misspent youth was spent, armadillos were a regular spring feature. Each spring, right after mamma skunk and all her little stinkers vacated, the armadillo would move in and raise her family.

Besides being cute, baby nine-banded armadillos are unique in the world of mammals. They are the only mammals that give birth to genetically identical quadruplets each and every litter.

Unfortunately for the armadillo, this is one feature that paints a big red bull’s eye on its shell for collectors for animal labs. Genetically identical specimens are ideal for tests that require consistent genetic makeup. Another trait that makes armadillos favored lab specimens is the fact that they are one of the few known, non-human, species that can contract leprosy systemically.

But as a 9- to 12-year-old kid, my attraction to armadillos was less intellectual and much more visceral — they were just loads of fun. Armadillos have rather poor senses of smell and vision and are generally quite distracted when they are busy snuffling and shuffling around for food. This is even more apparent with youngsters, making them relatively easy to sneak up on.

Once you sneak up on them — then the fun starts. Armadillos have a habit of launching themselves vertically, about two-three feet off the ground when startled. This is a definite no-no where autos are concerned and probably the reason that road-kill is most people’s initial contact with armadillos. Where other animals like chipmunks, possums, etc., have a tendency to hunker down when suddenly surprised by a half ton of plastic and metal hurtling along at 70 m.p.h., armadillos pop right up. But in the woods, they just grunt, bounce up, hit the ground, run a couple of yards and start foraging again. What better way for a bored 10-year-old to amuse himself than by following a troupe of armadillos around in the woods, goosing them?

I remember the first time I learned, incredulously, that armadillos are adept swimmers. A friend and I were cruising the back roads of Morehouse Parish one day and encountered an armadillo on a bridge crossing Bayou Bonne Idee. I stopped and let my friend out on one end of the bridge, drove to the other end and got out. We had the critter cornered. But as we approached, the armadillo stood up on its hind legs, sniffed and launched itself into the Bonne Idée below, where it splashed down, bobbed up and paddled ashore.

The nine-banded armadillo is found from Central America into the southeastern United States and is increasing its range northward.

While I found no records from North Carolina, the armadillo has made it to The Land Between the Lakes in Tennessee-Kentucky and can be found in Georgia and South Carolina. It is probably only a matter of time before it makes its way to coastal and/or Piedmont North Carolina.

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