Popular Science Monthly/Volume 47/July 1895/The Armadillo and its Oddities

1228681Popular Science Monthly Volume 47 July 1895 — The Armadillo and its Oddities1895Charles H. Coe



THOSE who have seen the armadillo only in pictures, or stuffed specimens in museums, can form but a slight idea how odd and interesting the animal is in life. With an ardent love of natural history, and with exceptional opportunities for indulging my tastes in this direction, I have been the possessor of many pet animals; but none, I can truly affirm, have interested me more by their odd forms and curious habits than a pair of armadillos.

I named my armored pets Jack and Jill, for they are a perfect pair, male and female, now nearly three years old. They were brought from Brazil, having been captured there by men who make it their business, with the aid of native hunters, to secure rare forms of animal life for menageries, zoölogical gardens, and private fanciers.

So rarely are armadillos seen in captivity, and so little has been written about them, that I am sure a reasonably full and detailed description of the animal in general and my pets in particular will prove interesting and instructive.

The armadillo belongs to two different genera, known as Dasypus and Tatusia, the former name being applied to several South American species, and the latter to those which inhabit North America. They all belong to the order Edentata, or toothless animals, which order also includes the sloths and ant-eaters. All these are characterized by the absence of front teeth, while the molars or grinders are not true teeth, being without regular roots or enamel.

Long ages before man appeared upon the earth, as we learn from fossil remains found in its strata, this order was represented by gigantic forms now known as the glyptodon and the megatherium. The former, a huge creature sometimes thirteen feet in length, was related to the armadillo, but its armor was in one solid piece instead of plates and movable bands. The megatherium ("great beast"), a still more enormous animal of the ancient world, was not covered with armor, but was nearly allied to the sloth. It often attained a length of over eighteen feet.

The musical Spanish name armadillo, meaning "little armed one," is applied to many species, from the smallest, no larger than a rat, to the giant armadillo, which measures four and a half feet in length from tip to tip, the tail being eighteen inches long.

All the species are confined to the American continent, ranging from southern Texas to the Argentine Republic. Some species inhabit the low coasts of Peru and Chili, others the elevated plateaus of the Andes, the forests of Brazil, and the barren plains of Central America and Mexico.

From the imperfect structure of its back teeth, which vary in number from twenty-eight to thirty-six, according to the species, and which curiously interlock with each other, it will be seen that the armadillo can only eat the softest food, both animal and vegetable, such as insects, worms, carrion, fruit, and tender roots. Some species are more exclusively vegetarian than others. Those which make the flesh of animals a part of their diet can only eat it after it has become putrid, or, in the case of my pets, after it has been cooked until very tender.

In certain South American countries where cattle are frequently killed for their hides only, and the carcasses left on the ground, the armadillo feasts on putrid flesh. It burrows under a fresh carcass and waits patiently until decay has taken place. It

Jack and Jill.

then eats its way into the body, finally leaving nothing but the dry bones and skin. In this habit the armadillo resembles certain insects, such as ants and carrion beetles.

The giant armadillo has a still more repulsive habit, sometimes burrowing into human graves when opportunity offers. In such localities graves are commonly protected from the ravages of these ghouls by stones or heavy planks.

The smaller armadillos often enter the nests of ants, but more for the purpose of securing the larvæ than the perfect insects. The tongue, though not long and extensile like that of the true ant-eater, is slender, tapering, and flexible, and can be protruded a short distance from the mouth. It is further adapted for securing insects by a glutinous saliva.

It is amusing to see an armadillo eat, to hear it smack its lips, and to notice its evident enjoyment of its food. Both in its wild state and in captivity it is a hearty eater and often becomes very fat. The flesh of the animal is highly prized by the natives, but its rank flavor generally repels other residents. It is usually placed upon the table roasted whole, as we prepare a young pig.'

On many of the dry and barren plains of Central America the armadillo is the only mammal. There, like the Florida gopher, it shares its burrow with a fellow-tenant, the deadly rattlesnake, which it does not seem to dread in the least. The snake, on the other hand, though it could easily insert its fangs into the armadillo's skin between its bands and plates of armor, seems to know better than to harm its good-natured landlord. Wild creatures often seem thus to tolerate one another's presence, and even to have a friendly understanding which man can not fully comprehend.

The various species of living armadillos differ in the number of movable bands of armor, and are named accordingly. The common species of Central America, Mexico, and southern Texas is the nine-banded armadillo (Tatusia novemcincta). My pets, Jack and Jill, belong to the South American species (Dasypus sexcinctus), and my description of them will therefore apply to the six-banded armadillo in general.

The two sexes resemble each other closely in size, structure, and outline. The total length of both Jack and Jill is nineteen inches, including the tail, which is six inches. The girth of the body is twelve inches, and it is plump and rounded like that of a puppy or young pig. When the legs are straightened, as in walking, the highest part of the back is six inches from the ground.

The head, three inches and a half in length and conical in shape, is covered above with a single plate of armor which extends on the sides to the eyebrows and lengthwise from a point three quarters of an inch from the end of the nose to a line drawn between the ears. Next behind the ears is a movable transverse band of armor nearly three fourths of an inch in width, separated from the head plate in front of it and from the next band behind it by a narrow space of chocolate-colored, rough, wrinkled, and pliable skin. Following this is another plate over the shoulders, two inches in width at the top, and gradually widening as it extends downward to the neck under the ears.

Now follow one after another the six movable bands from which this species is named. They are all alike, each three fourths of an inch in width, and separated from one another by similar spaces of leathery skin, as above described. Behind these six bands is the posterior plate, four inches wide and ending at the roots of the tail. The tapering tail has four movable bands, followed by a continuous plate extending to the tip.

Besides the armor thus described as protecting the head, back, sides, and tail, there is a similar coating on the outer surfaces of the legs. The six body bands and the four tail bands are composed of small polygonal pieces, joined together, slightly resembling certain parts of an alligator's skin. The other parts of the armor differ somewhat from these in shape, being more irregular.

It will be seen that the armadillo's protecting coat of mail is by no means firm and immovable like the shell of the tortoise, but is comparatively flexible, thus securing to the animal considerable freedom of movement, quite in contrast to the unwieldy awkwardness of the tortoise. When the armadillo's feet are drawn up under the body, this protecting coat reaches to the ground, overhanging like a cloak lightly thrown over the animal.

We read how the warrior of ancient time, though incased in a heavy coat of mail, was sometimes "pierced between the joints of the harness." A similar fate may befall our "little armed one." Even so puny a creature as the mosquito is enabled to annoy it by attacking the naked skin between the plates and bands. The tiny insect's partiality for this animal is so great, attracted doubtless by the abundant blood coursing through its plump form, that it even follows the armadillo into its burrow on its bloodthirsty errand.

The under parts of the animal, including the chin, breast, belly, and the inner sides of the legs, are covered only by skin. This is of the same color as that between the bands, and resembles in roughness the skin of a plucked chicken, being also naked with the exception of a few scattered hairs. The ears and the end of the nose are also without armor. A few bristly hairs appear on the skin between the bands of armor, and there is quite a tuft under each eye. The hair on the back and sides is pure white; on all other parts, jet black.

The ears are an inch and a quarter in length, round, and always erect. The eyes are small, black, and piggish in expression, with oddly wrinkled lids. The armadillo is chiefly nocturnal in its habits, sleeping much during the day; accordingly, we find the eyes weak and unable to bear strong light. The smell and hearing, on the contrary, are very acute.

The legs are short and stout. Both fore and hind feet have five toes, which are provided with powerful, slightly curved nails from one fourth to one inch long, those on the fore feet being the longest. With these instruments the armadillo not only burrows in the ground with wonderful ease and rapidity, but it can clutch an object, or the earth even, with a powerful grip. In walking on firm ground or on a floor, the nails only of the fore feet touch the surface, and but little more of the hind feet, although the latter are plantigrade when the animal is standing still.

The six-banded armadillo, in common with most of the species. is one of the most timid and inoffensive of all creatures, not even surpassed in this respect by the guinea pig. It is never known to defend itself, much less to make an assault. The absence of incisors and canine teeth renders it incapable of biting, and it has no offensive odor to warn off molesters. Its strong claws, strange to say, are never used as weapons of combat.

Some species are said to be able to outrun a man, but the six-banded armadillo can not run faster than a man can walk. It has a habit when pursued of quickly dodging and doubling like a rabbit. Failing in all other means of escape, it simply puts its head between its fore feet, tucks its tail and feet away, and rolls itself into a ball, after the common habit of our porcupine and opossum. In this position it may be punched and kicked about with apparently the same freedom from feeling that is displayed by these animals in similar circumstances. Not all of the species, however, resort to this expedient. Some are enabled to expand and flatten their bodies until they lie on the ground extended like a board, somewhat after the habit of the snake known as the spreading adder.

If the armadillo can not reach its burrow before an enemy is upon it, it often escapes by digging its way into the—ground a feat which it is enabled to accomplish in an incredibly short space of time, vanishing before the very eyes of its pursuer. Persons unused to hunting the armadillo sometimes grab its retreating tail, thinking thus to draw out its owner. Failure invariably attends such efforts. The animal simply continues its course into the earth, leaving its tail in the hands of the astonished hunter!

The great strength which thus enables the armadillo to resist withdrawal resides chiefly in its wonderful feet and claws. It simply stiffens its legs and firmly implants its long toe-nails in the ground. The back and sides of the animal are at the same time forced against the top and sides of the burrow, wedging its body in the hole so tightly that six men could scarcely draw it out. It would be like pulling up a sapling tree by its roots. I have noticed a similar bracing movement, by a stiffening of the legs, in the Florida gopher or land tortoise, a creature which has some habits in common with the armadillo.

Hunters have three methods of getting the armadillo out of its hole: by drowning it out, by smoking it out, and by digging. Sometimes all three expedients prove unsuccessful, the rapid burrowing of the animal enabling it to escape. The surest way is to continue digging until the fugitive is exhausted.

Hunters frequently resort to stratagem by taking advantage of the nocturnal habits of the armadillo and capturing it when it emerges from its hole at nightfall. Or they watch near its burrow on a moonlight night and pounce upon it suddenly when it returns from a foraging trip. Dogs are often employed to trail the creature when away from its home. When overtaken, of course, it offers not the slightest resistance.

In Central America the armadillo is frequently domesticated to rid houses of insect pests. They also make as nice pets as one could desire; no animal is cleaner or less objectionable about the house. They are as desirable in this respect as well-trained cats or lapdogs, and there could be no higher praise than this.

It is not merely the odd forms and ways of my rare pets that have made them the objects of my peculiar interest. I have been equally charmed with their intelligence and with their evident attachment to myself. If, when they are near me, I suddenly move away from them, they come trotting at my heels in their comical way as fast as their short legs can carry them.

Their gait is always a walk or brisk trot, never a gallop. Most of their movements when in motion resemble those of little pigs. They have learned to answer to their names, and come quickly when called. Curiosity is a prominent characteristic of the animal; if allowed free scope, they will explore every part of a strange place, trying to run their sharp noses into every opening. Much of the daytime is spent in sleeping. In lying down one generally rests its head and fore feet on the neck or back of the other, in a very affectionate manner.

Their attachment for each other is remarkable, all the more noticeable when one becomes separated from the other. If I shut Jack up in a basket, Jill goes round and round outside, at times standing on her hind feet and reaching to the top with her nose. When Jack is finally liberated they put their heads together for a few moments, and then off they go on one of their tours of exploration.

The spirit of science, said President Brinton at the American Association, is modest in its own claims and liberal to the claims of others. The first lesson which every sound student learns is to follow his facts and not to lead them. New facts teach him new conclusions. His opinions of to-day must be modified by the learning of the morrow. He is at all times ready and willing to abandon a position when further investigation shows that it is probably incorrectly taken. He is in this the reverse of the opinionated man, the hobby-rider, and the dogmatist. The despair of a scientific assemblage is the member with a pet theory, with a fixed idea, which he is bound to obtrude and defend in the face of facts. Yet even toward him we are called upon to exercise our toleration and our charity, for the history of learning has repeatedly shown that from just such wayward enthusiasts solid knowledge has derived some of its richest contributions. So supreme, after all, is energy that error itself, pursued with fervid devotion, yields a more bountiful harvest than truth languidly cultivated.