13 Things You Didn't Know About Armadillos

nine-banded armadillo foraging in leaf litter

DB Rolenrock / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Armadillo means "little armored one," and that armor consists of bony plates covered in keratin. There are about 20 species of armadillo, and all of them descend from South American ancestors. They are diverse in size, behavior, and their habitats.

The IUCN considers two species vulnerable and five as near threatened. Five additional species are data deficient and likely threatened. In 2016, scientists divided the greater long-nosed armadillo into three separate species. Scientists have not evaluated those species since the new classification.

Here are 13 fascinating facts you may not know about armadillos.

1. The Nine-Banded Is the Only Species Found in the United States

Nine-banded armadillo in green scrub on the side of a path

Robert Nunnally / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

The nine-banded armadillo (Dasypus novemcinctus) is the only armadillo species that migrated to North America. They were long limited to humid subtropical areas of the United States. Now, armadillos are found as far north as Nebraska and Illinois. Warmer winters caused by climate change may further expand their range.

They always give birth to identical young formed from the splitting of a single fertilized egg. Among mammals, this is unique to nine-banded and other Dasypus armadillos. When startled, the animal jumps 3-4 feet straight up.

2. Brazilian Three-Banded Armadillos Are Lazarus Species

Brazilian three-banded armadillo with light brown shell on a wooded path in the Andes
Sean Caffrey / Lonely Planet Images / Getty Images

Brazilian three-banded armadillos were believed extinct until 1988. Since then, researchers have found scattered, small populations. Animals that are wrongly believed extinct are called Lazarus species.

This species is listed as vulnerable by the IUCN and is considered endangered by Brazil. The total population is unknown because of the difficulties in accurately counting this nocturnal animal. Much of its habitat is being converted to sugarcane and soybean fields. Poaching is another significant threat to the species.

3. Giant Glyptodonts Are Their Extinct Kin

Giant prehistoric armadillo fossil with spiked tail on a platform in a museum
Tony Hood / Museums Victoria / CC BY 4.0

Glyptodonts were heavily armored, dinosaur-sized, early mammals. In 2016, scientists determined glyptodonts were a subfamily of armadillos that first appeared 35 million years ago. They became extinct around the end of the last ice age, while their smaller and more lightly armored relatives survived. Humans hunted these two-ton animals for meat. They then created shelters from the bony carapace.

4. They Sleep Up to 16 Hours Each Day

Armadillo asleep in burrow
MyImages - Micha / Shutterstock

As nocturnal animals, armadillos perform most activities — foraging, eating, burrowing, mating — at night. During the daylight hours, they spend up to 16 hours sleeping, usually in burrows. Armadillos rarely share their burrows with other armadillos, although they do share them with tortoises, snakes, and rats. When awake, armadillos spend more time foraging than most mammals. Only two marsupials and ground squirrels spend more active time feeding.

5. They Spread Leprosy

Armadillos are the only nonhuman animals to spread leprosy, now called Hansen's Disease. The bacteria that causes the disease thrives due to the armadillo's low body temperature. Researchers believe armadillos acquired Hansen's disease from 15th-century explorers. Humans contract armadillo-borne Hansen's disease through hunting them or eating their meat. In some cases, people become infected from inhaling armadillo fecal spores.

6. Only 2 Species Are Capable of Rolling Into a Ball

Three-banded armadillo curled into ball
belizar / Shutterstock

A common myth is that armadillos curl up into tight balls and roll away. None actively choose to roll away from predators. The only armadillos able to curl into tight balls are two species belonging to the Tolypeutes genus. These are commonly known as the Brazilian and Southern three-banded armadillos. All other armadillo species have too many plates, making this level of flexibility impossible.

7. The Giant Armadillo Is the Largest

Nighttime photo of giant armadillo with large claws, prominent ears, and light brown and black carapace
Schafer & Hill / Getty Images

Giant armadillos (Priodontes maximus) are the largest living armadillos, weighing 45 to 130 pounds in the wild. In captivity, they've reached 176 pounds. They extend nearly 5.9 feet long, including their tail. Their 8-inch middle front claws are the longest claws of any mammal.

IUCN lists the giant armadillo as a vulnerable species. Their primary threats are hunting for meat and habitat loss. Additionally, poaching for the illegal pet trade further jeopardizes these giants.

8. The Pink Fairy Is the Smallest

tiny pink fairy armadillo, a rabbit like creature with pink carapace
Cliff / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

The pink fairy armadillo (Chlamyphorus truncatus) is named for its pink armor and size. It measures between 4 and 6 inches in length and weighs about 3.5 ounces. In addition to the armor on their back, they have a vertical rump plate used to backfill burrows.

The species lives in the sandy plain and scrubby grasslands of central Argentina. IUCN lists these rarely seen armadillos as data deficient, but indicators suggest the species may qualify as near threatened. The species is primarily under threat due to habitat loss, while the animal's popularity on social media has led to an increasing number being captured for pets — a situation in which most of them die within eight days.

9. This One Screams to Warn Off Predators

side view of a screaming hairy armadillo
crbellette / Getty Images

The screaming hairy armadillo (Chaetophractus vellerosus) has more than armor as a defense. It has a pair of screeching lungs. Anytime this species perceives a threat, it emits extremely loud, alarm-like vocalizations. Hunters trap this species for its meat and carapace. Despite this harvest, it is a species of least concern across most of its range, covering portions of Bolivia, Paraguay, Chile, and Argentina.

10. Pichi Are the Only Species to Hibernate

small armadillo with a slightly hairy carapace
Patagonia Pichi armadillo. zixian / Shutterstock

Armadillos spend most of their lives sleeping, but the pichi (Zaedyus pichiy) takes it a step further by hibernating every winter. After building up fat stores and settling down in a burrow, the pichi's body temperature drops from 95 degrees to 58 degrees Fahrenheit. These armadillos also enter daily states of torpor, a type of mini-hibernation.

This species is found in the Patagonian Steppe and Pampas.

11. Some Species Are at Risk for Extinction

While the nine-banded armadillo population currently thrives, other species aren't as lucky. IUCN lists the Brazilian three-banded and giant armadillo as vulnerable. The Pichi, Southern long-nosed, Northern long-nosed, Southern three-banded, and Chacoan naked-tailed armadillo species are listed as near threatened. Five additional species are data-deficient and potentially endangered as well.

Hunting and habitat loss are the primary threats to armadillos. Habitat loss drivers are mining and deforestation for palm oil plantations, cattle ranching, and other agro-industry factors. The mining has increased due to the demand for copper to use in electronics.

12. Their Shells Are Used to Make Musical Instruments

Charango, a stringed musical instrument where the belly is created from the shell of an armadillo and attached to a guitar type neck
Charango made of an armadillo carapace. LPLT / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

Known as charangos, these 10-stringed instruments are an integral part of traditional Andean music in Bolivia, Chile, Ecuador, and Peru. While they were once commonly made from an armadillo's dried shell, contemporary charangos are generally made with wood or sometimes calabash gourds.

Armadillo shells are also used to make carnival rattles called matracas. In 2015, it became illegal to own or sell new armadillo matracas.

13. They Are Good Swimmers

Nine-banded armadillo swimming and drinking water in a shallow stream in Texas

Danita Delimont / Gallo Images / Getty Images

Armadillos are good swimmers and can hold their breath for 4-6 minutes. They walk underwater across the bottom of streams. When facing larger bodies of water, they gulp air to create buoyancy and then dog paddle. This ability to swim allowed them to expand their range. Armadillos crossing the Rio Grande led to the nine-banded armadillo expanding across the United States during the 20th century.

Save the Armadillos

  • Avoid South American beef imports and products containing palm oil.
  • Don't buy armadillo trinkets or instruments while on vacation.
  • Donate to armadillo research, like the Giant Armadillo Conservation Project.
  • Support forest conservation organizations, like Rainforest Action Network.
  • Use electronics for as long as possible before turning them in for recycling.
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