Armadillos – coming soon to a place near you?

I was doing some research the other day… 

Hmmm – it seems that most of my posts open this way.  I hope you all don’t mind that I use my research efforts as fodder for this blog.  Anyway, to continue, I wanted to insert an ‘armadillo incident’ in my current work in progress, which is set in northeast Texas in 1894.  Today armadillos can be found throughout much of the state (the exception being the Trans-Pecos region).   But what kind of range did they have in 1894?.  So I started digging around for information, and along the way I discovered some interesting facts about the strange looking critters and their migration into the US. 

First off, I assume most of you know what an armadillo looks like (see the pictures included here if you don’t) but for those of you who have never actually encountered a real life armadillo face-to-face, here are some statistics:  The common name for the armadillo found in the United States is the Nine-banded Armadillo.  The adult animal is about the size of a terrier, its upper body is encased in a bony carapace with large shields on its shoulders and rump, with nine bands in between (thus the name).  Average size is 2.5 feet in length and about 13.5 lbs in weight.  They have 30-32 peg-like teeth and strong claws that aid in their burrowing.

What my research uncovered was that the armadillo didn’t make an appearance in the US until after 1850.  After that date, however, the armadillo incursion took place with amazing rapidity.  In fact, the magnitude of their annual range expansion is almost ten times faster than the average rate expected for mammals.

Learning this tidbit, I immediately began to wonder what changed at about the 1850 mark.  Digging deeper I discovered that there were three major roadblocks that initially held the armadillos back. 

  • The first of these was the Rio Grande River.  Even though armadillos are good swimmers, the Rio Grande is a formidable waterway and very few armadillos would attempt such a crossing, and few of those who did survived the conditions on the other side.  Which leads to the second factor, which was
  • Predators.  Not only would the  wolves and panthers of Northern Mexico and South Texas have kept the population at bay, but man hunted them as well since armadillos were highly prized for their meat. (Still are – hubby informs me that he has eaten armadillo and found it quite tasty).  
  • And lastly there was the matter of habitat.  While armadillos can and do survive in a number of different settings and environments, their dwelling of preference is brushy or forested terrain.  Prior to 1850, south Texas experienced annual fires (both natural and man made) that left the area covered in large part by prairie grass.

All of these factors changed when American settlers began colonizing Texas in the later half of the nineteenth century. Armadillos were able to take advantage of the increase in human traffic across the Rio Grande, to find opportunities for safer travel themselves.  In fact, it’s likely that many were deliberately brought across as a potential food source.  And the presence of humans also served to decrease the population of the natural predators such as the above mentioned wolves and panthers.  And the halting of the yearly burn-offs allowed mesquite brush to gain a foothold in the open grasslands, providing a more armadillo-friendly habitat.  The subsequent development of this territory for pasture and crop use gave the armadillo population an additional leg up as it made the land an even more suitable environment for their habitation.

So that explains how they came to immigrate to this country.  But what factors played into their rapid expansion once they made it to the US?  By nature, armadillos normally don’t stray far from the area of their birth – unless the population is high.  It seems armadillos have a high reproductive rate, with females regularly producing their young in sets of identical quadruplets.   As favorable conditions allowed their numbers to increase, they began to range farther from home.  And with life spans up to twenty years, it only took a small number of the animals to establish stable populations in new territories.

Of course, man helped speed things up along the way.  Armadillos managed to stow away on railcars that were used to transport of cattle from Texas to other states.   They were also carried to other locations as curiosities and then later escaped or were released in the wild.  For example, the Florida population had its genesis in 1924 when armadillos were set loose from a small zoo during a storm, and their foothold was further strengthened when several more escaped from a traveling circus in 1936.

Another interesting fact I learned about armadillos is how they cross a body of water .  Not surprisingly, because of their heavy shell, they tend to sink.  When crossing a very narrow body of water, like a ditch or small stream, the armadillo will simply walk across the bottom underwater – in fact it can hold its breath for up to six minutes.  When faced with a wider body of water, however, the armadillo has the ability to ingest air, enough, in fact, to inflate its stomach and intestines to twice their normal size.  This increases the animal’s buoyancy, allowing it to swim across.  Once it reaches land again, it will usually take several hours for the animal to release all of this extra air from its body.  The mechanism armadillos employ to accomplish this is still something of a mystery to scientists, but it appears to be a voluntary rather than autonomic response.

Oh, and as for my story, I did discover that armadillos became common in east Texas at around the 1900 mark.  Which means, it is probably safe to assume that a few of them had reached that area by 1894.  Or at least that’s my story and I’m sticking to it…

Winnie Griggs
Winnie Griggs is the author of Historical (and occasionally Contemporary) romances that focus on Small Towns, Big Hearts, Amazing Grace. She is also a list maker, a lover of dragonflies and holds an advanced degree in the art of procrastination.
Three of Winnie’s books have been nominated for the Romantic Times Reviewers Choice Award, and one of those nominations resulted in a win.
Winnie loves to hear from readers. You can connect with her on facebook at www.facebook.com/WinnieGriggs.Author or email her at winnie@winniegriggs.com.

27 Comments

  1. 🙂 I love your blog today! I have always thought these funny looking creatures were interesting! I have seen quite a few of them in my lifetime and I always find myself taking atleast a 2nd look at them-they just look strange!

    I can only imagine what people back then would have thought of them-when seeing one for the 1st time….probably scared quite a few folks! LOL

    Whenever the subject of armidillos is brought up-I always remember the “wedding cake” scene from the movie-Steel Magnolias-it was the groom’s cake I do believe-looked just like an armidillo—with the inside of the cake being..none other than RED VELVET..hehe –too funny! How would like ot cut into that cake and take a bite? lol

    Anyway-thanks for sharing your research findings-I for one, do not mind at all that you share!
    Have a great day!

  2. WINNIE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    HI, GIRL!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    I found Winnie at my writer’s conference this weekend. I had no idea she was going to be there. It was so fun.

    I find Armadillos very disturbing creatures. The sort of look like gigantic hard shelled BEETLES, and how gross is that? Like a twenty pound HORSE FLY!

    Or a hard shelled super sized MOUSE which is even worse.

  3. What a fun blog, Winnie! I was surprised to find Armadillos in Missouri. Flattened ones are almost as common up here as they are in Texas. Now I know why. Thanks!

  4. What a great blog Winnine. I never knew so much about the Armadillo. I love every animal for there is a sacredness about them all.

    Hope to get your interview questions back soon. PLease email me and let me know

    navajotrust@yahoo.com

    Thanks
    Melinda

  5. Hi Melissa. So glad you enjoyed the blog. They are strange looking critters aren’t they? In fact they have an almost prehistoric look to them. Oh and that’s hilarious about the cake!

  6. Mary – it was absolutely AWESOME getting to meet and spend time with you the past few days. Was tickled to find you just as warm and fun in person as online.

    LOL on the hard-shelled, super sized mouse comparison – that’s just plain CREEPY!

  7. Tracy – yep, according to the articles I read, armadillos are moving farther north every year. Who knows, New Yorkers may find them digging up the grounds in Central Park someday 🙂

    Melinda – Thanks for stopping by and so glad you enjoyed the post.

  8. Hi, Winnie. I enjoyed sitting with you at breakfast yesterday at the conference and I’m looking forward to starting the book you signed for me while I was there.

    I loved your armadillo post. I had a childhood friend who chose the armadillo as her favorite animal. We were trying to be creative (no dogs or cats or horses for us). I chose the hippopotamus. I must say both of our choices are a lot cuter in the stuffed toy variety than in real life.

  9. What an interesting post! And several of us who have teased a friend without mercy about him seeing an armadillo on Interstate 80 in Nebraska will now need to apologize. Looks like he may have seen one!!

  10. I love this, Winnie. I had no idea about any of this. It’s something I wouldn’t have thought of had you not blogged about it. Love this!

  11. Karen W!! – hello my new friend. Wasn’t the ACFW conference fabulous?
    And yes, the stuffed animal version is MUCH cuter. I certainly can’t imagine cuddling up with a real armadillo 🙂

  12. Connie – too funny about the Nebraska sighting. But yes, it is entirely possible he saw one, especially if it was in the southern part of the state.

  13. Odd little critters, that’s for sure. I wonder where they fit in evolution. An armor-bearing mammal. Did you find out anything about their ancestry?

  14. Enjoyed this informative blog, Winnie. When I volunteered at the local zoo, we used a couple of three-banded armadillos in our presentations. From South America, these were smaller and cuter than the 9-banded, and the only armadillo that can roll itself up into a complete ball. Most kids here in Utah had never seen armadillos and were amazed by them. They looked like little space creatures.
    Some fascinating facts in your blog. Didn’t know about the swimming, or how they got to the U.S.
    Thanks for the info.

  15. Hi Winnie, what a terrific post. I totally love the picture of that little guy underwater. It just would never occur to me that the armadillo is a food source. I loved learning about this interesting little critter.

    Wasn’t it on Friends once, when Ross couldn’t find a Santa suit to rent and appeared as the Holiday Armadillo? What drug were the scriptwriters on to pick THAT?

    Thanks for a wonderful start ot the day. oxoxoxox

  16. Karen K. – glad you enjoyed to post!

    Jennie – armadillos are in the same family as anteaters and sloths. I don’t have any specifics on their evolution, but I read somewhere in my research that the armadillo of 60 million years ago was a big as a modern day rhinocerous.

  17. Elizabeth – how cool that you volunteered at a zoo. You must have a lot of interesting stories to tell about that experience. I’ve never seen a 3 banded armadillo in person, but I’ve seen pictures and I’d have to agree that they are much cuter than the 9 banded ones we have around here.

  18. Good lesson for today! I’ve never seen an armadillo out in the “wilds” of Texas, only the
    variety displayed at the zoo. They are unusual-
    looking little critters!

    Pat Cochran

  19. I think I went wrong on the horse fly. More like a huge JUNE BUG.

  20. Armadillos look prehistoric, don’t they? Creepy, really! But, poor little things, blind, clumsy shy. They don’t have much going for them, do they?

    I remember the Friends episode where Ross wore an armadillo costume for Christmas!

    Don’t they have some ties to leprosy, too, or is that a myth?

    Connie Cox

  21. Tanya – hi! Oooh – I remember tha episode of Friends. Thanks for reminding me of a ‘laugh moment’

    Pat, I agree heartily on the ‘unusual-looking’ critter comment 🙂

  22. Mary – LOL, yes I think June bug is a much more appropriate comparison than horse fly.

    Connie C – Armadillos will be glad to hear they have you in their corner 🙂 And the tie they have to Hanson’s disease (Leprosy) is that they are the only other creature, besides man, that can contract the disease. Scientists have studied them as part of their research into the disease.

  23. Dude, about HanSEN’s disease LOL. I am very protective of the name. Especially with the pornstar Tanya HanSEN that I wish I’d googled beforehand and wrote under a diff. name. Whew.

    Something is going on with her. My website is getting a TON more hits than usual. I guess it’s a backward blessing, having the same name as a porn star. Whether misspelled or not.

  24. Avatar

    Thanks for an informative post on the armadillo. I had not realized their range had increased so much. Have not seen any here in Northeast Tennessee, but now I’ll be looking for them.

  25. Tanya – ooops, sorry for the mis-spelling. Thanks for catching it.

    Patricia – you’re welcome. And I’ll bet if you look hard enough you’ll definitely find them there in Tennessee

  26. We see them here in Missouri on occasion but usually laying by the side of the road unfortunately.

  27. All I’ve got to say is that people from Louisiana will eat anything!

    Pretty informative post – especially on the swimming. With that armor, you’d think they’d sink.

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