All About the Nine-Banded Armadillo

1 / 4
The Nine-Banded Armadillo is the only species of armadillo out of 20 to live in North America.
2 / 4
Armadillos discover ways to survive just about anywhere, even on Cumberland Island, one of the barrier islands off the coast of Georgia.
3 / 4
A baby armadillo crouches under vegetation as it awaits its mother.
4 / 4
The armadillo’s underside is thickly covered with coarse hair.

At first glance, they look a little like a football with legs and a tail. They are called hillbilly speed bumps and opossum-on-the-half-shell. The Spanish conquistadors gave them a name that means “little armored one,” which in Spanish is “armadillo.”

Only one of the 20 different species of armadillos lives in North America, the Nine-banded Armadillo (Dasypus novemcinctus). In the United States, Nine-banded Armadillos have for years been associated with Texas, where they were first documented in 1846. Since that time, they have significantly expanded their range into eastern New Mexico and Colorado, north into Kansas and Nebraska, and east across the Mississippi River as far as the Carolinas. Many of the armadillos found in the southeastern United States may have come from animals that were introduced into Florida in the 1920s.

An adult Nine-banded Armadillo is about the size of a small dog, reaching about 18 inches in length and weighing around 10 to 15 pounds. It has a pointed snout, like a pig, which it uses to sniff out potential food. Nine-banded Armadillos have strong legs and claws (especially the front ones), which are used to dig for food and to dig the burrows in which they live. The hind feet have five claws, and the front have three claws (fairly uncommon among mammals).

The Nine-banded Armadillo gets its name from the nine folds, or bands, found on its skin that allows it to be flexible. The armor itself is composed of bony plates, called scutes, covered with horn. The underside of these animals is not armored, but has a thick covering of coarse hair.

The armor helps protect them from all but the largest predators, and, contrary to popular opinion, the nine-banded armadillo cannot roll into a ball to protect itself (a related species can, however). When threatened, a Nine-banded Armadillo tries to escape into dense vegetation or one of its numerous burrows. Another tactic used by this species is to jump straight up (probably to startle a potential predator), then scurry away as fast as possible. Unfortunately, they use this same jumping strategy when frightened by an oncoming car or truck, and often jump right into the bumper or underside of the vehicle.

Little armored backhoes

If there is one thing this creature does well, it is dig. They dig to get to food, and they dig to make their homes. Digging is so important to armadillos that having soil they can dig in is a major factor limiting their distribution. Armadillos are not found in areas with hard or extremely rocky soils.

Most of the armadillo’s diet consists of small creatures such as insects, grubs, earthworms, spiders, centipedes, and the eggs of animals such as snakes and lizards. They seem to be especially fond of ants, consuming thousands of them in just one meal. Armadillos also feed on carrion and some vegetation (mostly berries and other soft fruits). It is their love of insects and other ground-dwelling animals that gets them into trouble with many gardeners, groundskeepers and landowners. To get to their favorite foods, armadillos are constantly sniffing the ground and digging holes. The holes they dig searching for food are usually shallow, only a few inches deep, but they dig lots of them.

Armadillos have 32 small, peg-shaped molars that contain no enamel (the hard outer covering on most teeth). Since most of their diet consists of relatively soft-bodied animals, there’s not a lot of need for chewing. Like their cousins the anteaters, which have no teeth at all, armadillos rely mostly on their long sticky tongues, which they use to slurp up small creatures like ants and grubs. They also rely mainly on their sense of smell and hearing to find their food (and avoid their enemies) since their eyesight is not very well developed.

Nine-banded Armadillos use their powerful claws to dig burrows in which to live. Within their territory, they’ll dig multiple burrows with multiple entrances. Burrow lengths vary from just a couple of feet to well over 20 feet. Female armadillos give birth in their burrows and often construct nests inside made from a variety of vegetation. Most armadillos are relatively solitary except during mating season, although they will occasionally share burrows with each other. A wide variety of other animals also use armadillo burrows as either temporary shelters or permanent residences. Unfortunately, armadillos are not particular as to where they dig their burrows, as long as the soil is suitable. This often means under house foundations and in gardens, pastures and earthen dams.

One peculiar critter

Your eyes don’t deceive. Armadillos don’t just look strange, they are strange. For instance, Nine-banded Armadillos are one of the only species besides humans that can contract leprosy. They have low body temperatures and low metabolisms, which are other interesting traits that make them ideal for medical research. Because of their low body temperatures, it is important for them to conserve body heat. One way they do this is by mixing the warm blood coming from their arteries with the cooler blood coming from their veins as it passes through their legs. This reduces the heat leaving their bodies as little blood goes out into the legs. While this keeps the body warm, the downside is, it makes their extremities, like their feet, legs and ears, more susceptible to frostbite during cold weather.

While cold temperatures should limit their ability to expand north, armadillos seem to have ignored this fact, extending their range as far north as southern Nebraska; not exactly the tropics.

After mating, the young are usually born about eight months later. However, female armadillos can delay the implantation of their fertilized eggs for as long as two years. If environmental conditions are bad, such as a drought or shortage of food, the female can put off having babies for a couple of years until things get better. Once the egg is implanted, it will always divide into four embryos and always produce identical quadruplets, all of the same sex. Armadillos are the only mammal species to reproduce in this fashion.

The Nine-banded Armadillo not only has a piglike snout, it apparently tastes like pork. During the Great Depression, armadillos were referred to as “Hoover hogs” by folks who hunted them for food. This was a not-so-veiled reference to President Herbert Hoover’s promise to put a “chicken in every pot.”

Armadillos don’t look very well equipped for crossing water, but they are. They can hold their breath for up to 10 minutes and cross fairly narrow streams or rivers by simply walking along the bottom. If they have to swim, armadillos gulp air into their stomachs and inflate it to twice its normal size, increasing their buoyancy and allowing them to cross large bodies of water with relative ease. As a result, even large rivers like the Mississippi are no barrier to the armadillo’s range expansion.

The Nine-banded Armadillo is usually active at night during warm weather. They become more active during the daytime in late autumn and winter. During extremely cold temperatures, armadillos remain in the warmth of their burrows. Of course, armadillos don’t need cold weather to be inactive. On average, they sleep around 16 or 17 hours per day.

The good, the bad, the armadillo

These creatures can be beneficial to landowners and homeowners by eating enormous numbers of insects, especially termites and fire ants. On the other hand, they can be a problem, as their persistent burrowing can damage gardens, lawns and golf courses. They also have been known to damage foundations by burrowing under houses. The Nine-banded Armadillo also can carry diseases such as leprosy and salmonella, and parasites such as tapeworms, which can be transmitted to humans.

The armadillo’s digging, both for food and burrows, is the main problem most people have to deal with, however. Controlling or eliminating the problems posed by armadillos can be difficult at best. They can be excluded from areas such as gardens by fences buried deep enough to discourage digging efforts. They can be live trapped and relocated, or they can be killed. Of course, which methods may be used depends on each state’s wildlife laws and regulations.

If you live in armadillo country and have armadillo problems, one of the best places to start is with your local extension office or state wildlife agency.

Armadillos are a relative primitive group of mammals and have been around a long time. The Nine-banded Armadillo is the only species (out of 20) that is doing well. While its range expands and its numbers increase, most of its relatives are declining, and at least one species, the Pink Fairy Armadillo (a native of Argentina), is endangered. The nine-banded “little armored one,” like raccoons and cockroaches, has somehow figured out a way to do well in spite of everything humans can throw at it.    

John Marshall teaches in North Little Rock, Arkansas, commuting from the small town of Benton, where he lives with his wife, children, granddaughter and several pets.