Amour for armour

If you pop in to the Museum at 2.30pm on a Monday-Thursday afternoon, you’ll meet one of our Museum experts with some of their favourite specimens. Here Eileen Westwig, Life Collections Manager, shares one of her recent Spotlight Specimens.

Last month, as part of our regular Spotlight Specimens activity, I chose to highlight armadillo specimens. They got lots of attention, which is not surprising considering how amazing armadillos are. The word armadillo is Spanish meaning ‘little armoured one’. It is true that all armadillos have armour wrapping around their body as protection. Their size, however, varies a lot. The smallest one is the Pink Fairy Armadillo (Chlamyphorus truncatus), which grows up to 18cm (including tail length) and weighs up to a tiny 100g. At the other end of the spectrum, the aptly named Giant Armadillo (Priodontes maximus) is the largest, and can grow up to 150cm (head to tail) and weigh up to 60kg.

Giant Armadillo from the OUMNH collection. Sharp, big claws help to scratch and dig for food, such as tubers and termites, and dig burrows for sleeping.

Armadillos are found in South and Central America. However, the common Nine-banded Armadillo (Dasypus novemcinctus) has spread over the last hundred years, all the way into the southern United States. What makes it so successful is its varied diet of tubers, termites, ant larvae and other insects, as well as snails and bird eggs found on the ground. The expanse of ranching and the absence of natural predators such as cougars have made it easy for this long-nosed armadillo to spread as far as Texas and Florida.

Beside their stiff protective armour, all armadillos are capable of curling up their body to some extent, in order to protect the soft and vulnerable underside. Only one armadillo is the true champion when it comes to rolling up tightly into a perfect sphere. This astonishing achievement can be found in the Southern Three-banded Armadillo (Tolypeutes matacus). In the picture at the top of this page, you can see two armoured triangles in the middle, which are its head (on the left) and tail (on the right).

Common Nine-banded Armadillo showing its body plates, which usually lie underneath a layer of horn.

The armour of armadillos is made out of two layers. There are bony scute plates (visible in white in the picture above) that are overlaid with horny plates. The horny plates are made of keratin, the same material as hair and fingernails.

Nine-banded Armadillo made into a basket as souvenir

Sadly the existence of this amazing creature is threatened by loss of habitat and hunting. Not only are armadillos widely eaten, they are also made into tourist souvenirs, such as this basket.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, some armadillos from the southern USA are naturally infected with the bacteria (Mycobacterium leprae), that cause leprosy (Hansen’s disease). Most people (95%) are immune to it, but please use caution if you’re ever in a position to handle an armadillo!

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