THE ARMADILLOS

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Despite their awkward appearance, these odd creatures are absolute machines. If soil conditions permit, an armadillo can dig out of sight in less than two minutes.

The armadillo's diet consists primarily of insects. They relish ants and termites, digging into a nest and licking up the morsels with sticky tongues. However, armadillos aren't bashful about consuming fruits and other vegetation. They will even partake in small vertebrates like snakes and carrion.

Armadillos have rather poor eyesight. They depend on a keen sense of smell and touch to locate food. When food is found their heavy claws make short work in securing a meal. When digging, armadillos loosen the soil with their nose and front feet. The refuse is piled beneath their body. Then, balancing on the forefeet and tail, they quickly kick their hind feet backward to scatter the soil. In loose soil areas with a high insect population,the nocturnal armadillo will wreck several hundred square feet of landscape overnight.

Armadillos like loose loam soils, which generally contain an abundance of insects and other invertebrates. This will support a high armadillo population.

Even in low population areas, the armadillo's burrows pose a threat to agricultural equipment and livestock. Armadillos will make several burrow entrances within their hunting area. Biologists have documented a single armadillo that had fifteen holes within its ten acre range. Often a single burrow will be six to twelve feet long. In loose or sandy soil, a main burrow will tunnel underneath tree roots to give the nest roof support.

While they may look wicked, armadillos are not aggressive creatures. When non-threatened they're slow moving and indifferent to their surroundings. If they suspect danger, they'll stand on their hind feet, propped up by the tail, to look around.

The popular conception of armadillos rolling into a tight ball for defense is wrong. Their leathery armor can readily be pierced by the teeth of large animals.

Instead, a startled armadillo will seem to explode, jumping straight up three to four feet, then running as fast as most dogs for short distances. They'll dodge, hide in thick cover, or dive into a nearby burrow if possible.

Bodies of water are no real barrier. Being heavier than water, armadillos can sink to the bottom and simply walk across, holding their breath for six to ten minutes. If the water is too wide, they gulp in quantities of air, inflating their lungs, stomach, and intestines. Then, with a leather ball-like buoyancy, they merrily paddle across.

The armadillo's unusual characteristics go way beyond its appearance. These strange animals have a unique mammalian reproductive behavior. All females regularly give birth to identical quadruplets. The litters are not mixed. They're either all female or all male. This stems from the fact pups develop from a single egg. Shortly after the embryo attaches to the uterus it divides into twins. Then each twin buds again to produce four perfect clones.

Another odd characteristic deals with the armadillo's low metabolism, which has helped medical science understand one of the world's oldest and most feared diseases; leprosy.